In my village, tonight, the first Saturday of February, it will be the festival of Imboc, one of the four major pagan festivals. The drummers in the car park, and the torches and the lanterns, will announce that the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox has been reached.
Often, they parade through the snow, but not this year. This year, the winter has been mild and wet, and, in recognition of the new climate, the morning has brought fine rain and mist. This will not do the fireworks any good at all, nor those of us who will walk behind the procession, feeling, strangely and stubbornly, that somehow if we don’t the winter will last for ever.
The other major festivals of the Celtic year are Beltane, held on May day, Lughnasadh, a harvest festival between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox, and Samhain, held at the beginning of winter on the first day of November.
Here, Imbolc is celebrated with fireworks and the ritual death of Jack Frost in battle with the forces of spring and the Green Man. It is not a quaint survival from 2,000 years ago. It is a modern event of community theatre, a time when we can begin to dream of better weather.
It always seems a little premature to celebrate the death of the winter at the beginning of February. February can be such a bitter month. But Jack Frost must be slain, I suppose, before we can begin to roll back the darkness of winter.
As is only proper for a Celtic fire festival, a huge bonfire is lit to chase away the dark and cold forces.
The festival is, of course, a revival, or even an invention, of the twentieth century. Many people seem to think that the village has somehow held on to an ancient festival of light, a remnant of the pagan days of druids, feasting and the pagan Gods. Indeed, the druids and pagans amongst us turn up. But the whole thing was dreamed up about twenty years ago, as a community project, and the village has taken it to its heart.
It is sanitised and commercialised to an extent, of course, and the police are there, as well as the ever-present god of Health and Safety, but this is not for tourists (who are at home watching the television), and it is created by the people who live and work in the valley.
It is the first time that people feel it safe to talk and hope for spring. This winter may have been mild and wet, but there have been plenty of others that have been long and cold. And however warm it may get, the winter will always be dark.
One translation of the Celtic word, ‘imbolc’, is ‘of the belly’. This translation summons the images of fertility and pregnancy. The month of February seems to be pregnant with life and warmth, with new lambs and the creation of new projects.
By our front door, the snowdrops are flowering.
Always, the year is turning . . .