Imbolc is a festival of light in many – if not all – regions of the Celtic lands. In the Alps, where archaeologists have found the earliest remnants of this culture, and in the German speaking lands in general, the concept of light is even in the name of the festival, Lichtmess (“Light measure”). Candlemas, as it is called in the Christian English speaking world, is also a reference to it.
All this is probably based on what our forebears observed at the beginning of February: The Sun is out longer – for about an hour – than He was at the darkest days of the year, at the Winter Solstice. The farming year now began in earnest, and in the areas where Germans and Celts lived in close proximity, people erected a specific pole in the village centers. The Germans called it TINPAL, which means ‘time pole’ or ‘light measure pole’. There is evidence that the Celts had something like that, too. Not so much hinting at the time when they were set up, but when they were taken down. We have several churches in the Alps which point at the Sun as it rises on October 13th. That is no arbitrary date, but exactly 40 weeks after January 6th, the day after the night the Great Goddess visits folks’ homes at the end of the Raunächte, the twelve magical nights after the Winter Solstice. (more about this here). The village squares where we find those particular churches are usually named after St. Koloman. COILOS was the ancient Celtic word for “thin, high”, and MEN was the term for “stone”. Like in DOLMEN or MENHIR. Thus, the COILOSMEN in the village center is believed to have been a thin, pole-like standing stone of particular length resembling the German TINPAL, used to “measure the light” (Resch-Rauter, 1999). From this it would be fair to conclude that the COILOSMEN had a similar function as the wooden TINPAL, and may also have been erected each year on or around what today is February 1st or 2nd.
But this just explains the reason for the German name of the festival. What’s more important is that this time of year, Imbolc, is a festival dedicated to the light. While we don’t need to measure it any more to know when our various farming activities should start, we could – and should, really – still acknowledge this fact of increasing daylight.
And what better way to do exactly that than through fire and ritual. Whether it is a full-fledged bonfire on the town common or in the back yard, or a small candle on your dining room table, the most important thing is to be aware of, and connect to, the light in a conscious way.
The ritual could be as simple as lighting a few candles, one after another, after having sat in a dark room for a while. That alone would manifest the awareness of what is going on in the world (the northern hemisphere, at least) in your own four walls. Or, you could kindle a blasting bonfire – wherever it is safe and legal – and package that into a larger Imbolc rite.
Bringing the light home, to your own hearth, from the central bon fire is a theme we find widespread in the area where the Celts once dwelled. In Styria, one of the nine provinces of Austria, such a custom has survived. There, folks carry the Lichtmess-fire from house to house to re-kindle the extinguished oven fires.
And then, in true Celtic fashion, you could drink and feast, maybe even on this typical – and simple to make – Alpine midwinter dish.
Read more about the Alpine version of the festivals of the year in my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, which is available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com