Return of Light, Renewal, and Rabbits

Early February is an exciting time of renewal from several faith perspectives, continuing celebrations  that began in January with the new year of the 430-year-old Gregorian calendar. In late March we’ll see the beginning of the astrological year when the Sun moves into the sign of Aries, the ram. In early February, different kinds of new beginnings are celebrated:

  • February 1 opens the season of Imbolc, the second quarter of the Celtic year. It is a “cross-quarter” observance, halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.
  • February 2 is Candlemas Day, a Catholic celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary and observed with candlelight processions.
  • February 3 this year brings the Lunar New Year, celebrated with a Spring Festival in Asian cultures.

What a perfect week to be set aside as World Interfaith Harmony Week by the United Nations! This is the time to reflect on the meaning and wisdom of interfaith as a universal path for sacred service to people of all faiths and no faith at all. This can be a time to honor the common threads among the world’s faith traditions, deepen the awareness that we all are part of a great web of life, and share many forms of gratitude for this big blue ball hurtling through space that we call home.

Each culture and spiritual path finds ways to honor the seasons on our big blue ball. Two major celebrations of this time of year are Imbolc and Lunar New Year.

Imbolc

Imbolc belongs to Brighid (also Brigit, Bride), the young maiden of spring, the matron of healing, smithcraft and poetry, mistress of inspiration and prophecy. The 10th century Cormac’s Glossary describes her as the daughter of the Daghda, the “Great God” of the Tuatha de Danaan. Brighid is said to soften the frozen earth with her white wand. Many springs, wells and rivers in Britain and Ireland are dedicated to her.

Brighid’s festival of Imbolc coincides with the birth of lambs and lactation of ewes – the flow of milk that signals the return of the life-giving forces of spring. Many aspects of the goddess Brighid were incorporated into St. Brigit, who was fostered in a druidic household and founded a monastery at Kildare, Ireland. The nuns there kept a perpetual sacred fire until it was extinguished in the Reformation. The connection of fire and Brighid/Brigit still lives in parts of the Celtic world whenever the hearth fire is raised in the morning or smoored (covered) at night.

As the Light-Bringer, Brighid is one of the most important bridging figures between Pagan and Christian Celtic traditions. Her rites are still celebrated at Imbolc by making Brigit’s crosses out of interwoven rushes to hang near the door of house, barn and stable.

The Catholic Church replaced the festival of Imbolc with Candlemas Day on February 2, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and celebrated with candlelight processions. The flame of the candles ties Candlemas back to Imbolc and Brighid the Light-Bringer.

Lunar New Year

The lunar calendar dates from 2600 BC, when the Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Each month in the lunar calendar begins on the darkest day – the new moon. The Lunar New Year begins on the first new moon of the new year. Because of cyclical lunar dating, the first day of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. In 2011 February 3 begins the Lunar Year 4709 – the Year of the Rabbit.

Legend tells that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came. Buddha named a year after each one, and said that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. Those born in rabbit years are said to be popular, compassionate, sincere, wise and cautious.

The Lunar New Year is a time of family reunion, community, as well as a celebration of change. The New Year rings in all of the good and ends all of the bad. Like other new year celebrations, it is a time for renewal. The Lunar New Year brings hope for resolution and an end to previous trials.

Chinese New Year celebrants wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. Fireworks are an ancient custom – the crackling flames frighten evil spirits. The culmination of the new year celebration is the Lantern Festival on the 15th day after the new year, with its famous Dragon Dance.

Celebrate 

If you are fortunate to live in an area with an Asian population, watch for Lunar New Year celebrations, parades, and opportunities to learn about Chinese and other Asian cultures and practices. Look for the history underneath the fireworks and special foods. This can be a second chance to set your intentions and re-solutions for the rest of the year.

For Imbolc, here are some suggestions:

  • Purify, clean up, and clear out your house. Get started on your spring cleaning. Put away the last of those holiday decorations.
  • Make Brighid’s crosses out of straw, paper, whatever works. Hang them over your door, or in the kitchen – the place of nurture in your home.
  • Celtic folk put out food (cake, buttered bread, milk) for Brighid as she and her cow walk through their neighborhood on Imbolc.
  • Meditate and set your intentions for what you would like to see grow in health and strength this year, for yourself, your family, your community, the earth. Ask for Brighid’s blessing upon your prayers.

This is a time to dance to the beat of a different drummer. Celebrate similarities, honor differences, and expand our awareness of the richness of the fabric of humanity.

Sources:

Matthews, Caitlin, The Celtic Book of Days, Godsfield Press, UK, 1995.
http://www.chalicecentre.net/february.htm
http://www.familyculture.com/Chinese_new_year.htm
http://www.infoplease.com/spot/chinesenewyear1.html

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"Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms." - George Eliot
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