In many faiths and cultures February marks a time of change and renewal. The 1st of February is Imbolc, a Celtic fire festival in which many pagans and agricultural communities celebrate the coming of spring and new life, as well as cleansing ourselves of the physical and mental clutter of a long, dark winter. This festival is strongly associated with the Goddess Brigid, associated with fertility, healing, fire, renewal, the spring, new life and poetry. Imbolc is also celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day in various sects of Christianity, primarily in Ireland.
The 3rd of February is Setsubun (節分, “seasonal division“) a Japanese festival which is celebrated across Shinto, Buddhism and is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Rituals are held all across Japan in which demons (oni) and bad luck are driven out to make way for good luck. This festival often makes the news with people dressed in oni outfits being pelted with soy beans by huge crowds whilst chanting ‘oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!‘ (demons out, good luck in!) In the West it may seem a little silly, but we must remember that the traditions of New Year’s Eve to make noise, sing and open doors at the strike of twelve also originate with pushing away bad luck from the previous year.
Setsubun is also heavily associated (and often celebrated along with) Lunar/Chinese New Year. This is a festival that has certainly spread far beyond its shores and is celebrated all across the world! House cleansing and purification is especially popular at this time of year, as well as gifts to others, food with families and huge parades and fireworks.
All of these festivals have a similar origin and purpose; to drive away bad luck that was accumulated over the past year or winter, to cleanse ourselves physically and spirituality and to pray for good luck in the year ahead.
The Struggle With Dark and Light
This last winter was particularly harsh on me physically and mentally and I’ve found myself struggling to do day-to-day tasks. Imbolc is a very welcome reminder and marker in my calendar that soon days will get longer and the light brighter.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve suffered from seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D. – an unfortunate acronym). This caused a horrible depression every winter, caused by the lack of light. Accompanying this would be aches and pains, anxiety, stomach troubles and all the classic signs of depression. It also affected my sleep – I was unable to sleep in darkness, finding a chaotic calmness in the roaring traffic and bright lights of the day to lull me off to sleep which in turn made the illness even worse. Even now I require white noise or a fan running to be able to sleep, otherwise my mind seems to run at 100mph in the tense silence of the night. I’m certainly not alone, it is estimated that 1 in 15 people (or even as many as 1 in 3 according to other sources) in the UK suffer from S.A.D. symptoms every year, and those statistics are just the people who talk about it.
In countries were we get little light in the winter months, something like S.A.D. can easily be brought on from not taking the time to go outside, even if for a few hours. And as winter sets in we find ourselves not particularly wanting to due to the cold weather and the home comforts of our rooms, especially for those of us that work from home. Even people who commute to work have a problem were it’s dark when they get up and dark when they go to bed, only to spend all day in a windowless office with not a speck of natural sunlight.
Why The Light Festivals Are Important
I collectively call the above mentioned festivals the light festivals as they celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring. Although it’s not ‘officially’ spring until March 21st, we can begin to see the early signs around this time in the form of new flowers such as snowdrops and daffodils, tree blossoms, milder weather and longer hours of light.
Even if a person doesn’t follow a religious path of any kind, I feel that it is important to at least acknowledge the seasons coming and going. This helps us assess and reflect on the passage of time, it helps us break our life into sections and aids us in knowing what’s expected to come up. Psychologically, people definately seem to be happier in the spring and summer due to the increased light and more outside activity and so Imbolc, Setsubun and the other festivals around this time let us know that the wait is almost over.
Winter can be difficult for many people for a myriad of reasons, the lack of light not being the only reason. For a start, the holidays can be hard for those with less than agreeable families, we can be overworked and our immune systems can take a battering. It almost seems like a cultural taboo to be depressed or otherwise not in the ‘holiday spirit’ and this expectation can make the time even worse for many of us.
The beginning of spring and the return of the light often feels like a second chance, a hand reaching out to us to aid us in a time of turmoil. It can have the effect of lifting our mood and encouraging us to go outside, which of course benefit us in the long run. For those of us with mental illness, the spring also acts as a sign that the dark times do not last forever and the darkness will quite literally soon give way to the light.
Whatever you celebrate, whatever your views, may February be a time of light and new beginnings for all of you. There certainly seems to be some kind of universal consciousness when it comes to the fact that this time is perfect for cleansing ourselves of the negativity and clutter, and for celebrating the return of the light. Whether you do it on a physical, mental or spiritual level is up to you.
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