Imbolg Invocations, or: Groundhog Day Is Not As Weird As You Think

by Paige Curtin

Well okay, yes it is. But it turns out, so are a lot of the holidays we observe at the beginning of February!

The name Imbolg (or Imbolc) comes from a Gaelic word meaning “in the womb” or “in the belly”, so that should tell you everything you need to know about what we’re celebrating on this holiday! 

Just kidding, that’s pretty vague. Technically the pagan holiday Imbolg derives from a Celtic fertility festival (don’t they all?) honoring the Goddess Brigid, and that imagery in itself can be tricky for a lot of reasons. While we’re actually talking about the fertility of nature and the coming Spring, ancient and contemporary Imbolg traditions alike emphasize cis-heteronormative gender roles by dressing up straw dolls for a romantic evening with a symbolic phallus, or whacking single women with evergreen branches to ensure a productive uterus. So if you’re seeing witches share rituals all about womanhood and pregnancy and it’s not feeling right to you, that’s okay (and of course if it DOES feel right to you, that’s great too)! There's still plenty of celebrating to go around.

A lot of the other holidays widely recognized on February 2nd are Christianized versions of this same ancient event, just dressed up in Jesus: The Feast of Lights, Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Feast (taken from the Irish pagan festival of the Goddess Brigid). If you aren’t a deity worshipper, or European, or Wiccan (we’re not Wiccan either), the earthly reasons for honoring the beginning of February are easy enough to craft into your very own holiday. Or not! Because the best part of being a witch is celebrating whenever you damn well please. 

But here in the so-called United States, February 2nd and its virile vibe is all about a psychic groundhog from Pennsylvania.

Groundhog day began with German settlers in Pennsylvania, who couldn’t locate their usual badger or hedgehog to predict the coming spring weather and substituted an enterprising groundhog instead. See, in all of those February 2nd holidays up there, the divinatory traditions were focused on determining whether the winter was almost over, or if it would be extended into the typical spring planting season. For many places, this meant simply observing the weather itself on February 2nd and using context clues to decide if things were warming up or keeping cold. Imagine that! In Ireland, a mythical old woman gathering firewood (or not) was the indicator. In France and England a bear could prophesize the end of winter. So you see, it really isn’t that weird that we all crowd around a woodchuck den at the crack of dawn on February 2nd. It’s tradition

There’s potential in this prognostication, sort of: shadows are longer in winter because of the position of the sun, and groundhogs are partially hibernating, burrowing critters, so a groundhog spotted at a certain time of day mid-way between the Solstice and Equinox without a shadow could very well mean that the stars are aligning for a shift in the season. 

Or maybe the truth is we’re all just so desperate for a clear answer about how long the dark days of winter will last that we’re willing to glorify a groundhog just trying to go about its silly little groundhog day. 

Whatever it is, it works… um, sometimes. The most famed groundhog of Groundhog Day is Punxsatawney Phil, and his predictions have a 40% success rate (which tbh is not bad for a marmot meteorologist). He also has 10 pages of merch on his official website, where you too can become a member of the Punxsatawney Groundhog Club… but you’ll have to put in the work to join the Inner Circle and no I’m not kidding. According to Phil’s official Wikipedia:

“The Vice President of the Inner Circle prepares two scrolls in advance of the actual ceremony, one proclaiming six more weeks of winter and one proclaiming an early spring. At daybreak on February 2, Punxsutawney Phil awakens from his burrow on Gobbler's Knob, is helped to the top of the stump by his handlers, and purportedly explains to the President of the Inner Circle, in a language known as ‘Groundhogese’, whether he has seen his shadow. The President of the Inner Circle, the only person able to understand Groundhogese through his possession of an ancient acacia wood cane, then interprets Phil's message, and directs the Vice President to read the proper scroll to the crowd gathered on Gobbler's Knob and the masses of "phaithphil phollowers" tuned in to live broadcasts around the world.”

Okay it’s weird and ridiculous and involves men in tophats, but that’s witchy as fuck, right? And definitely not as simple as observing whether a groundhog sees their shadow or not. The acacia wood cane is particularly worth noting, as that evergreen wood is a symbol of renewal and longevity, much like Phil himself... who the Inner Circle assures us is the same Phil from the first Groundhog Day in 1886. The groundhog lore doesn’t stop on February 2nd: at the annual fall Groundhog Picnic, Phil receives an elixir of life known as “groundhog punch” that his kept him going for over a century. 

Is Groundhog Day perfect? No way. Phil’s stress-levels are worth being concerned about, and capitalist-driven holidays are always worth scrutinizing. But basically EVERYTHING in this weird, wide world is worth a second glance, including the ancient pagan traditions we invoke on February 2nd. 

Astrologically what we’re celebrating is the midway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox when the light starts to come back and everyone’s energy speeds up a little bit as we rush towards warmer weather. Not-so-coincidentally, “quickening” is also a term used to describe an early stage of pregnancy, so if we scrap the pregnancy stuff altogether and lean into the literal quickness of it all, this holiday is about sprinting to springtime! We’re laying winter to rest, planning for a particularly juicy season of flowers and grass and birds and bees and skimpier clothes and that sexy, sexy sunlight. What’s not to love about that? The rituals almost write themselves: Light a candle, make a moodboard of spring lusciousness, start your spring cleaning, eat something delicious (because “in the belly” isn’t just about babies), make special offerings to your haus plants that have kept your verdant company all winter. Or hey, if you’re a freak who loves winter and isn’t too concerned about spring, really lean into your winter activities and cherish the end of the season!