Archive for The Quickening of the Year

Imbolc – the Quickening of the Year

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on February 1, 2023 by telescoper

It is 1st February 2023, which means that today is Imbolc, a Gaelic festival marking the point halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox.  In the old pagan calendar, this day is regarded as the first day of spring, as it is roughly the time when the first spring lambs are born, daffodils etc start to appear, and the days get noticeably longer.  It corresponds to the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau and is also sometimes called, rather beautifully, The Quickening of the Year.  It’s a time for rebirth and renewal after the darkness of winter. Walking by the canal on my way to work this morning, I passed a place where two swans have nested for many years. I noticed that last year’s cygnets – which I saw on Monday with their parents – now appear to have departed for pastures new. That is the way of things. It won’t be long until this year’s chicks appear.

In Ireland Imbolc is usually often referred to a Lá Fhéile Bríde,  St Brigid’s Day, after St Brigid of Kildare, whose feast day is 1st February.

In the Northern hemisphere, in astronomical terms, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts of about 13 weeks each.

If you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are the cross-quarter days, of which Imbolc is one. They are:

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added in italics are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan and, in parenthesis the Christian terms), for the cross-quarter daysThese timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween but hopefully you get the point that although the Pagan festivals have been appropriated by the Christian church, they have much older origins.

The last three of these also coincide closely with existing Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so may happen a few days away. Until this year, however, there wasn’t a holiday for Imbolc. Last year, however, the Government decided to create a new Bank Holiday that corrects this anomaly. The first such holiday is next Monday, 6th February, the new St Brigid’s Day holiday.  which also happens to be the first national holiday in Ireland to be named after a woman.

Incidentally, the Celts counted each day starting from sunset, so the Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day celebrations in County Kildare started last night, 31st January. Maynooth Castle – or at least the remains thereof – was illuminated last night, though I was not there to witness it.

As it also happens, today is my first Advanced Electromagnetism lecture of Semester 2 and also the 5th anniversary of the very first lecture I gave in Maynooth, on Computational Physics on 1st February 2018…