Imbolc is here

Est. Reading: 3 minutes

In this modern age of plenty, as January passes into February, celebrations tend to acclaim personal acts of abstention and self-discipline.

Those who have succeeded with the Veganuary challenge – an annual initiative to encourage people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the first month of the year – can rightly feel a sense of achievement. Disciples of Dry January, who have pulled off 31 days without alcohol, deserve a stiff drink.

But back before these new obsessions, ancient people had different ways of marking this point in the year.


One of my favourites is the Celtic tradition of Imbolc, a pagan festival held on February 1st and 2nd to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Like Candlemas, its counterpart in the Christian calendar, it is a festival of light, which celebrates the first stirrings of spring after the long dark winter.

The name Imbolc is usually taken to mean “in the womb” and is said to link to the time of year when ewes become pregnant.

I can assume that I am not alone when it comes to optimistically declaring that spring has arrived. I only need to feel the sun on my face for a few hours before I have declared a new season is upon us. Inevitably, I go too early and have my enthusiasm curbed by a cruel cold snap or a prolonged period of driving rain.

Spring in the air

But spending time in Cornard Country Park last Saturday, it definitely felt like spring was in the air. It was temperate and the sun appeared for long intervals. The distinctive two-note call of a great tit pierced the air. This must be one of the most common and recognisable of our birdsongs, a sound I used to describe to my children as being like a ‘rusty see-saw in need of a good drop of oil.’

Further evidence of a change in season was offered by the beautiful flower of a woodland crocus emerging from the ground – its delicate violet and white petals, and orange stamen in colourful contrast to the brown leaves around it.

I also came upon several clusters (or drifts, as I heard them called) of snowdrops, the flower that most represents this time of year – they are the flower of both winter and spring. I saw a number of small gatherings as I made my way through the park, as well as a larger, magical congregation among a stand of elder shrubs. Not surprisingly, in Britain Imbolc is associated with snowdrops, which are used in ceremonies to celebrate it.

It strikes me that there is a fairytale-like quality about snowdrops, but also a contradictory element to these white beauties.

We look upon the snowdrop as a wildflower but it is probable that most colonies we encounter are garden escapees. There is also some debate as to whether the snowdrop is native to this country. Naturalist Richard Mabey points out that snowdrops were not recorded as wild until the late eighteenth century, suggesting they were introduced.

Bulbs and ants

While other plants are dormant and hidden beneath the ground, snowdrops dare to rear their beautiful heads. Close up they are beguiling, like miniature lampshades with small green horseshoe - like markings.  But they are also tough little plants - their sap contains a form of antifreeze that prevents ice crystals from forming and the tips of their leaves are hardened for breaking through frozen ground. In France they are more commonly known as pierce-neige; snow piercer.

As they flower so early, snowdrops cannot rely on bees and other pollinators to help them reproduce. Instead, they spread via bulb division where the bulbs divide and create new bulbs.

However, they may still be visited by early flying bees on warm days and if they are pollinated, the flower has evolved an ingenious tactic for ensuring its seeds get planted.

After flowering, the snowdrop stems collapse and seed pods develop on the surface of the soil. Each seed has a small oil and protein-rich appendage called an elastiome, which attract ants. The ants take the seeds into their nests and feed the elastiome to their larvae while the seeds remain untouched but planted in the ground, ready to grow and do it all again next year.

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