The Sabbat is known by other names, such as Candlemas, Lupercalia, and the silly American Groundhog Day. But to many Pagans it is Imbolc, a hearkening back to ancient Gaelic cultures and how they marked the turning of the year.
The name refers to milk, reminding us of agrarian communities, and how instead of calendars they used changes in the trees, earth and animals to keep track of the passage of time. Somewhere between the winter solstice and the spring equinox the ewes and cows begin to ‘bag up’ as the milk comes in and they prepare for the spring birth of their young.
Imbolc as a celebration is much more of a modern festival, although it is believed to have been practiced in Celtic societies. But just as our ancestors did, modern Pagans yearn for signs of spring in the long dark winter nights. Imbolc takes place in the depths of winter, yet gives us hope that the seeds are stirring. We can see the days lengthening, even if the winds are still from the north, and the ground is still iron. We cannot yet plant, but we can start seeds inside and plan our gardens. The long winter coats of the herd animals begin to loosen, ever so slightly, and birds can be seen carrying off the shed hair to begin constructing their nests in the stark winter branches.
This fire festival is usually celebrated with plenty of candles, seeds to represent impending spring, and creamy comforting dairy products are present on the feast table. Some like to invite the loving presence of the goddess Brighid (for whom the Sabbat is sometimes named) by creating a ‘Bride’s bed’, a simple straw doll dressed in white cloth who is laid in a basket or small box with a wand, club or other phallic representation. This charm for crop fertility should be kept safe until it is burned in the fires of Imbolc’s opposite Sabbat, August’s Lughnassagh.
Obviously not all Pagans are Wiccan or Celtic, and some have found that Imbolc does not have the resonance of the Great Sabbats. This article by Sunweaver describes how one eclectic group has chosen to replace Imbolc with a Hellenic-based celebration of Apollon’s return from Hyporborea. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2013/01/making-light-how-we-voted-imbolc-off-the-island-and-arent-even-sorry/
One doesn’t have to worship Celtic gods or be a farmer to appreciate the significance of the festival. Merely taking a walk, being aware of subtle signs of spring, and expressing quiet gratitude to the life cycles of our blessed planet will warm the heart as surely as the early flowers push through the snow.