by Mabh Savage
I keep looking, I really do. I’m so used to seeing the snowdrops just before Imbolc, that it pains me that I haven’t found one yet. I feel like I need to see one before sunset on the first of February, as spring can’t really be approaching if the little fair maids of February haven’t bobbed their heads in my direction.
We moved 11 months ago, and where I lived before, though it was grim, and noisy, and smelly, there were snow drops. For some reason, my quiet little estate that has been home for almost a year doesn’t seem to be a good habitat for these little harbingers of warmer days.
Although common enough in most places, the snowdrop is not a native British plant, even though it has grown wild here since the seventeenth century at least. It was introduced to our islands as a garden plant many years before this, from the warmer climes of Southern Europe. Despite travelling from sunnier lands, galanthus pops its head up before winter has had time to take its final bow; no waiting in the wings for this little diva. It speaks of ambition, strength, and the ultimate optimism: hope.
It’s not just because of this though, that I like to see the snowdrops before Imbolc. Imbolc is an elusive Celtic festival, probably the one we know least about, other than it was probably celebrated at this time of year, and may relate to the start of the lambing season. The word Imbolc means ‘in the belly’, and of course, the baby lambs are in their mother’s tummies as we speak, getting ready to face the brisk, British spring. It’s a time of preparation, taking stock of what is left after the dark, winter months, and girding one’s loins for the year ahead. I remember coming back to my spirituality after a dark and dismal patch of atheism. I had been angry and bitter, and forgotten who I was. A snowdrop helped me remember.
This is many, many years ago, and I had gone for a walk in late January, wrapped up like an imitation Michelin man. I saw the snowdrop, still tightly closed, nodding sagely at the side of the road, and I picked it. Now, I don’t really condone picking wild flowers, but I was drawn to this, and as a witch I like to follow my intuition where possible (and sensible. Ok, not always sensible.) I returned home, shed my lumpy layers and reverently placed the snowdrop in a small glass of water on my dresser. After some thought, I placed a couple of candles around it, and performed my first Imbolc ritual. I remembered Brigid, goddess of smiths and poets, who has been my muse many a time. She is associated with grief and healing, two things that were both fresh wounds for me at this point. She reminds us of the promise of spring, and of new beginnings. I thought of the new beginning I was making for myself; walking away from darkness, not back to where I had been before, but forward, crossing crossroads; making decisions for myself but honouring those who helped me.
I sat in silence for some time, with my eyes closed, feeling warm and grateful; grateful to myself for taking this time out from my busy day; grateful to my ancestors for naming this day a feast day and giving us this point of focus; grateful to the world around me and the spirits that inhabit it. I opened my eyes, feeling slightly sleepy, and gasped and smiled. The snowdrop was open. In the short time it had sat on my dresser, its petals had spread apart, as if it was ready to face the coming sun. I felt I was truly in the presence of magic, and now every snowdrop I see reminds me that magic is often only a breath away.
So I’m off out soon, boots on, child in hand; away to the woods we go. Muddy paths, jumping branches, skipping stones across streams; so much fun to be had, while we seek our snowdrop.
Mabh Savage is the author of A Modern Celt and Celtic Witchcraft