Have we turned the corner of a cold winter?
- The ancient holiday of Imbolc celebrates the imminent return of the sun in spring.
- The holiday also commemorates either goddess Bhrigid or St. Brigid, who may or may not be the same person.
- Good weather on Imbolc means more winter to come.
Happy Imbolc! As it tends to be with pagan holidays, Celtic and Irish Imbolc is different things to different people and at different times. "Imbolc" is from the Celtic i mbolg, which means"in the belly," probably a reference to pregnant livestock at this time of year, mostly ewes, carrying their offspring to term in the spring. It was also called Oimelc, which means "milk of ewes."
Imbolc represents a hopeful moment as the seasons begin to turn from darkest winter to the promise of spring: new life — fertility — renewal, and the return of the warming sun. In 2019, appropriately enough, February 1 was the day that one of the most extreme periods of cold ever experienced in the U.S. finally broke.
As website Claddagh Designs puts it wryly: "The hardest part of the year was over; adverse weather, cold temperatures, food rationing, and of course, no warfare (an integral part of Celtic society) would soon be a thing of the past. Farmers were getting ready to go back to work, preparing animals for breeding, warriors were picking up their weapons again, and the political and social aspects of life that had been put on hold for winter were also beginning again."
Given the importance of agriculture and sunlight to ancient cultures, it's not a surprise that Imbolc dates back to Neolithic times, as evidenced by the way in which some monuments of that era — such as Mound of the Hostages at Tara in Ireland — contain passageways that align with sunrise on Imbolc and its autumnal cousin Samhain. The arrival of Christianity brought with it the association with St. Brigid, believed by some to have replaced the goddess Bhrigid. More on her/them later.
What happens on Imbolc
Photo credit: Tobias Vemmenby on Flickr
As with any good festival, Imbolc involves feasting, particularly of home-and-hearth edibles stored over the winter, such as breads, grains, onions, and potatoes.
In keeping with the (eventual) return of the sun, fire is a big part of Imbolc. Beyond spectacular public displays of fire, candles are lit all around celebrants' houses. In earlier times, hearths would burn through the Imbolc night, and if a house was made of non-flammable stone, multiple fires were lit.
People visit wells on Imbolc, particularly holy wells, circling them in the same direction of the sun and praying for a good year ahead. Afterward, coins and pieces of cloth called "clooties" may be left as offerings.
Leading up to the holiday, people make Brigid's crosses that can be hung up around their houses in celebration of Imbolc. Another popular item is the green brat Bhride, or Bhrigid's mantle. Its origin is an offer of property made to the young Bhrigid/Brigid for an abbey she wished to build. The king told her she could have as much property as she could cover with her cloak. Using magic, she increased the size of the cloak until it was so massive it covered all the land she needed.
Today, women fashion their own Bhrigid's mantles of green cloth for wrapping around their shoulders, and it's believed that leaving such a mantle on the hearth allows Bhrigid to visit and bless it on Imbolc each year, making the mantle more and more imbued with her magic with each passing Imbolc.
Creepier than a groundhog
A Cailleach bhéara. Image source: Rob Hurson on Flickr
As with modern Groundhog Day on February 1, the weather on Imbolc foretells the future: An Imbolc with nasty weather signifies a great summer on the way. This may seem backwards at first glance, but here's how it works.
It all has to do with the heating needs of the forest hag Cailleach, the goddess of winter. If winter is to go on for a while, Cailleach needs more firewood. She thus spends Imbolc searching the forests for it, and since she prefers to be out in the woods on a sunny and dry day, that's what the day provides. Bad weather, on the other hand, is good news: It means that Cailleach has no need for wood, what with spring just around the corner, and has decided to stay in and snooze a bit more.
Goddess Brighid and St. Brigid
A Brigid's cross. Image source: Bart Everson on Flickr
The true history of how Imbolc came to its connection to St. Brigit is a little unclear.
The commonly told version is that she was preceded by the daughter of the Dagda in Irish mythology. He was an early invader and one of the Tuatha de Danaan. His daughter's name, "Bhrigid," is from the Celtic brig, for "exalted one." She was actually one of a trio, all of whom were named Bhrigid, and who were understood to represent three aspects of a single goddess. Hence, Bhrigid was considered a triple goddess. Bhrigid was known for looking after healers, magicians, poets, and bards, and she was gifted at divination and prophecy. She also protected pregnant women and their infants; hence contemporary Bhrigid mantles are said to protect them as well.
A flame was secretly kept burning in Bhrigid's honor at the abbey she founded in Kildare, Ireland, and this flame — and the abbey — may have helped connect her to the later Christian St. Brigit. Lisa Lawrence suggests as much when she writes, in her Pagan Imagery in the Early Lives of Brigit, that,"When two religious systems interact, a shared symbol can provide a bridge from one religious idea to another. During a period of conversion, an archetypical symbol such as fire may acquire a new referent, while not being entirely emptied of a previous one. For example, the fire that clearly signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit in Saint Brigit may continue to signify pagan conceptions of religious power."
St. Brigid, on the other hand, was born in Faughart, County Louth in Ireland, and died sometime around 525. She was a devoted servant of the Church, and founder of religious communities in Ireland — likely the reason she was made a saint. she's also credited with founding the same Kildare abbey allegedly built by Bhrigid, one example of how the histories of these two women have become so interwoven that they're impossible to separate. Their identities have progressively merged since goddess Bhrigid's day became St. Brigid's day after the latter's death.
Adding more confusion to the story is the apparent case that the first written reference to the goddess Bhrigid appeared in the 10th century, long after St. Brigid had become the focus of Imbolc. Newgrange.com suggests, "So it could be argued that 5th century Saint Brigid predates the goddess Brigid." Or perhaps it's just a whisper of Outlander-style standing-stone time travel we can add to an already a magical story.
Some things have always been worth celebrating.
- Some lost ancient holidays aren't really so lost after all.
- All of us celebrate at least some pagan traditions whether we know it or not.
- There are two things that tend to bring humans together: crises and holidays.
One of humanity's greatest advantages is our propensity for community — we can accomplish together what no one can pull off alone. It's not something that happens automatically or even all the time, of course, and we can be fractious. There are, though, two things that tend to bring us together: crises and holidays.
Going back to time immemorial we've come together for holidays that celebrate our commitment to one another in the face of both difficulties and achievements. We enjoyed holidays that celebrated shared joy at the completion of common tasks such as harvests, and reaffirmed our resolve to get through, say, a hard winter together.
In Europe many of these ancient celebrations reflected worldviews that were displaced by Christianity spreading across the region after about 200 CE. Christianity largely replaced the focus on the individual experience with the celebration of the life of Christ. Some millennia-old holidays disappeared, as others were co-opted by the Church. And yet, many not completely lost, and their echoes underscore how human understanding changes, evolves, and goes back and forth over time. The big questions remain. Answers come and go.
Life in all its messy glory
Stonehenge sunrise. Photo credit: Tony Craddock on Shutterstock
Ancient holidays tended to depict the experience of everyday people, in some places personified by major and minor deities, animals, or natural phenomenon. While each civilization enjoyed a holiday calendar that reflected its own beliefs, there were certain events that were largely universal: Holidays that marked changes of seasons, represented by different positions of the sun in the sky. Signs whose significance has been understood for a very, very long time.
- Winter solstice: December 20–23
- Vernal equinox: March 19–22
- Summer solstice: June 19–23
- Automnal equinox: September 21–24
Spring by any other name
O jovem Baco e seus seguidores ("The young Bacchus and his followers"). Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
As one would expect, the expression of these events varied from place to place. For example, during what we consider Spring:
- The Persian holiday Nowruz marks the start of the new year with a clearing away of the old at the vernal equinox. It dates back some 3,000 years to the Zoroastrianism religion.
- Also celebrating the new year with the onset of spring were the ancient Mesopotamians, whose 5,000-year-old Akitu festival occurred during the first month of the Babylonian calendar, likewise in the March/April time frame.
- In ancient Greece, March brought with it the dramatic festival of Dionyisa that honored of the Greek god of wine.
What’s a pagan?
The Triumph Of Christianity Over Paganism. Wow. Painting by Gustave Doré
"Pagan," from the latin word paganus, originally described followers of a particular, pre-Christian polytheistic religion. Over time, though, its meaning broadened. The Oxford Dictionary awards it two very different meanings. The first reflects its use as a perjorative (see painting above):
"Belonging or relating to a religion that worships many gods, especially one that existed before the main world religions."
Today, the word often carries less of a sting, and in fact has been adopted proudly by some of the many people who believe that a naturalistic view more accurately represents their view of the world around them. Oxford's second definition:
"Belonging or relating to a modern religion that includes beliefs and activities that are not from any of the main religions of the world, for example the worship of nature."
Proud pagans of the 21st century
Modern pagans, in a fitting echo of the original different civilizations from which their holidays have sprung, recognize a diverse range of annual celebrations throughout what they commonly view as the Wheel of the Year.
As always, the seasons rank high in importance among contemporary pagan holidays, and they have ancient-sounding names.
- Yule: The word "Yule" is probably a Germanic version of the Scandinavian winter solstice holiday's name, Juul. As the world turned the corner toward longer days, pre-Christian Scandinavians paid tribute to Thor (pre-MCU) with the burning of the Juul log.
- Ostara: The vernal equinox is celebrated with a holiday named after Ostara, the Germanic goddess of Spring. (Her name is also the basis for "Easter.") Ostara was represented by the hare and with eggs, both symbols of fertility. Ring a bell?
- Lithia: The fire festival of Lithia marks the sun's longest, and thus symbolically, most powerful day of the year. The Celts lit celebratory fires that burned from sunset the night before Lithia until sunset of the holiday. "Lithia" is the Latin name for the June and July months, at least according to an 8th-century monk, Bede, who said so. (We're unable to confirm this in modern Latin.)
- Mabon: The holiday name "Mabon" goes all the way back to… the 1970s. It's not an ancient pagan holiday, but a modern one. Mabon was the son of Welsh mythology's Mordred, who was either the son or brother of King Arthur, he of the Table Round. It's not clear.
Quarter holidays for modern pagans are typically Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain, a story in and of itself.
How a pagan holiday is reinvented: Christmas
Image source: GJones Creative
As Christianity took root, some pagan holidays were so popular that they were simply absorbed. The symbolism of an original celebration sometimes survived — as with Easter's rabbits and eggs — or a new meaning was superimposed over pre-existing festivities. Christmas is a good example.
Christmas has something to do with the birthday of Jesus, though the connection is not as direct as it might seem, and, in fact, may actually not have anything to do with him.
The earliest record of Jesus' birth puts it at January 6, though it's not entirely clear why. (The earliest Christians didn't celebrate his birth.) According to Religion Facts, the January birth was based on his crucifixion date of April 6: It may have been "a calculation based on an assumed date of crucifixion of April 6 coupled with the ancient belief that prophets died on the same day as their conception."
The festivities had shifted to December 25 by 273 AD, perhaps to take advantage of longstanding, well-attended pagan solstice celebrations. As far as their symbolism goes, the 1922 revision of Sir James George Frazer 's The Golden Bough contains this eye-popper:
"In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, "The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!" The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers."
Sound familiar? Eventually, the existing solstice story may have simply been re-written as Jesus' nativity, his presumed birth date of January 6 being rechristened the Festival of the Epiphany. (Washington Post has a great article about Christmas' origins.) If the Star of Bethlehem is factual, though, it appears his birthday would have actually been in June or October, depending on the year in which he was born, which experts believe was not 1 AD.
Old stories, good stories
Some things are just obvious if one lives at a latitude where there are seasons. For as long as understanding of what it all means remains elusive, we might as well at least come together to celebrate now and then. That seems to have been the conclusion, anyway, of ancient humankind. It still seems a pretty good plan today.
New psychology research suggests people get more lasting joy from giving gifts.
- Giving gifts results in longer happiness from the act, says new research.
- We can sustain the pleasure of a new experience every time we give to others.
- Hedonic adaptation makes it hard to continuously enjoy spending money on ourselves.
Just in time for the holidays, comes new research that says you get more satisfaction from giving gifts than receiving.
Usually, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation is responsible for us feeling less happiness every time we experience some event or activity again. We get used even to the best things and want more. But when we give to others, something different happens.
Psychology researchers Ed O'Brien from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Samantha Kassirer of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management carried out two studies. They discovered that the happiness of the subjects declined much less or not at all if they repeatedly gave gifts to others as opposed to getting the same gifts themselves.
O'Brien attributes this effect to our desire for new experiences.
"If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we're currently consuming and experience something new," says O'Brien. "Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it."
One of the experiments consisted of having 96 university students getting $5 every day over the course of 5 days. The catch - they had to spend it on the same exact thing either for themselves or someone else (like donating to charity or putting money in a tip jar). At the end of each day, the study participants had to reflect on their spending and level of happiness.
This study showed that over the 5 days, the levels of self-reported happiness decreased for those who spent money on themselves. Those who gave money to someone else did not show such a fade in happiness, however. The joy and satisfaction of giving is just as powerful every time you give it.
Lovers exchange gifts beneath a decorated Christmas tree. December 1955.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
For the second experiment, the researchers had 502 online participants play 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. The 5 cents they won each round could be either donated or kept for themselves. After each round, the subjects reported how joyful the winning made them feel. Those who gave the won money away reported their happiness decrease much slower than those who hung on to the gains.
The fuller explanation for why people react this way to giving may lie in the fact, say the researchers, that when we focus on an outcome like a paycheck, we are setting ourselves up for being less happy. Paychecks can be compared to one another, which reduces our sensitivity to each such experience. When we focus on actions, like donating to a charity for example, comparison becomes less important. What happens instead is that we treat each instance of giving as a unique event that can bring us inner satisfaction and elation.
Another reason we don't get used as quickly to happiness from giving is because of the societal benefits that come with it. Giving enhances our "prosocial reputation" and strengthens our sense of connection and belonging to the community.
This holiday season, ask the questions you don't know the answer to.
Sometimes, you just can't relate to your relatives. Whether it's sports, politics, or past events, gathering around a dinner table during the holiday season can be a daunting prospect. Communication expert Angie McArthur explains some of her cardinal rules for connecting with your family and friends, and she identifies one of the biggest errors people make: asking the wrong questions. The root of the word 'question' is 'quest', as in endeavoring to know something—but how often is that really our motivation? As society reaches a new peak of polarization, in tense moments we may find ourselves asking questions just to prove our own points correct, which Angie McArthur explains are called leading questions. There is a more powerful method you can use: open questions, which are fueled by genuine curiosity, connection, and lead to a meaningful exchange. Chief among her tips, McArthur advises that this holiday season, you ask the questions you *don't* already know the answer to. Keeping these tips in mind, you might not merely survive the holidays—you might actually enjoy them. Angie McArthur is the co-author of Reconcilable Differences: Connecting in a Disconnected World.
There are many strange instances of marketing and holiday traditions coming together. Let's be more alert in 2017.
We just celebrated the most wonderful time of year, when many families gather in their homes to see what a smiling, jolly man with a white beard brought them. Was it toys? Coal? Flatscreen TVs?
Or deep fried chicken in the Southern tradition with a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices?
For families in Japan, the holiday is still occasion to gather round the table and break bread, but the bread is buttermilk biscuits and the old man providing the treats is named Colonel Sanders, not Santa Claus. Kentucky Fried Chicken is the way the vast majority of Japanese families ring in Yuletide cheer.
In one of the strangest instances of marketing and holiday traditions coming together, Japan’s Christmas celebrants have been queueing up for the Kentucky Christmas dinner package at KFCs across the country since 1970. Back then, Takeshi Okawara, the manager of Japan’s first KFC, noticed a hole in the market: there was no national tradition for Christmas.
He started offering a Party Barrel around the holidays, which eventually evolved into the nation-wide “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign, the positive effects of which are still being felt today. Mr. Okawara served as the CEO of KFC Japan for 18 years, and the holiday season currently brings in a third of the chain’s annual sales.
While incorporating the holidays into a brand’s marketing efforts is nothing new, there’s been a recent effort to take it a step further by incorporating branded traditions into holidays and other cultural moments.
This year, Burger King’s Whopper Exchange encouraged people to bring in unwanted Christmas gifts in exchange for a free burger the day after Christmas, with all the gifts being donated to an unspecified charity. How long until Boxing Day burgers become a tradition?
REI made waves last year when they took the Black Friday occasion to close their doors and encourage people to make a new holiday tradition in the great outdoors with family. This year, they’re at it again and have been joined by the likes of the National Parks Foundation and Outdoor Research.
While the traditional smoldering yule log has long since been replaced by hours-long videos of roaring fireplaces on Netflix and YouTube, Lagavulin took it up another notch last year with Nick Offerman’s 'Yule Log'. For 45 uninterrupted minutes, Mr. Offerman sits and silently drinks Lagavulin next to a roaring fire, and I can’t tell you how many holiday parties I’ve been at that have featured this stoic masterpiece in the background. Lagavulin doubled down this year with Nick Offerman's 'New Years Eve', clearly aiming to further cement its place in holiday celebrations.
And of course, we have Coca-Cola to thank for the single most prevalent aspect of modern Christmas holiday traditions: Santa Claus himself. While old St. Nick has existed in various forms over the centuries, the plump, rosy-cheeked version we know today sky-rocketed to world renown primarily because of a wildly successful Coke campaign from the 1920s. (However, contrary to popular belief, this version of Santa was not created by the soda company, only popularized by it.)
Does marketing exploit wholesome cultural traditions, or are cultural traditions just another form of marketing? Perhaps it depends on how one defines “marketing.” Culture has always been subjective, of course, but the act of convincing someone to change their behavior in a way that benefits another has existed since cave paintings. When that behavior invokes nostalgia and strengthens relationships, it’s tradition — but when it involves a purchasing decision, it’s called “marketing.”
As we head into a new year and collectively examine our own behaviors and how we might change them, it may do us all well to consider not only what we’re doing, but who it is that wants us to do it and why they care so much.
A very happy — and examined — new year to you all.