The Origins and Practices of Holidays: Imbolc, Setsubun, Lunar New Year

February 1-2, 2019 - Imbolc

Imbolc is a Wiccan and pagan holiday, that is sometimes referred to as Candlemas or Oimelc. The celebration of Imbolc originates from the Celts. Imbolc symbolizes the halfway point between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara).

The word "imbolc" means "in the belly of the Mother," because the seeds of spring are beginning to stir in the belly of Mother Earth. The term "oimelc" means ewe's milk. Around this time of year, many herd animals give birth to their first offspring of the year, or are heavily pregnant. As a result, they are producing milk. This creation of life’s milk is a part of the symbolic hope for spring.

This holiday also celebrates Brigid, the Celtic fire and fertility goddess. Over the years, Brigid was adopted by Christianity as St. Brigid. Brigid (or Bridget) is the patron saint of Irish nuns, newborns, midwives, dairy maids and cattle. The stories of St. Brigid and the goddess Brigid are very similar. Both are associated with milk, fire, the home, and babies.

The Celts used to make a doll of the Goddess Brigid from oat or wheat straw. They would make a dress for the doll and put it in a basket with a white flower bedding. Young girls would carry the dolls door to door, and gifts are given from each household. In addition, on the day of Imbolc, people lit bonfires and held a feast to honor Brigid.

To celebrate Imbolc, some modern day pagans focus on celebrating Brigid. They do this by setting up an altar with the symbols of Brigid, like a corn husk doll, white flowers, a bowl of milk, and candles. If there is a group gathering, they might cast a circle, and recite a prayer to receive a blessing from Brigid.

Other pagans aim their rituals towards the cycles of the season. Some people do house cleaning rituals as a part of getting ready for spring. Other families find a pile of snow, gather some musical instruments, and chant to drive away the winter. An example of one such chant is:

Old man winter, it's time to go!

Take with you these piles of snow!

Melt, snow, melt!

Spring will soon return!

A flame, a fire, all the warmth it brings,

melt the snow, cold be gone, welcome back the spring!

Learn more about Imbolc, Brigid, and pagan traditions with these books:

Rupert's Tales


Sabbat Entertaining

February 3, 2019 - Setsubun 

Setsubun, Setsebun, Setsu-bun, or Setsebun Sai, is a Japanese cultural and Shinto holiday. This holiday contains a ritual to banish bad luck, disease, and evil spirits from the past year and to invite good luck and health for the coming year. It also celebrates the coming spring.

The main event is mame-maki, which means “bean scattering.” The mame-maki is supposed to drive out evil spirits and lingering misfortune that may ruin the new year. For mame-maki, soybeans are roasted and placed in a wooden sake box. Then, one family member dresses up as the Oni (demon) with a paper mask. The Oni represents bad luck. The Oni will be chased out of the house by the rest of the family throwing beans at the Oni while chanting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Demons get out! Good fortune come in!) before they slam the door shut.

Traditionally, the bean-throwing was done by a male of the household from the coming zodiac year. So, in 2019, if there was a man born in the Year of the Pig, he should be involved in the bean-throwing, for extra good luck. Nowadays, in a traditional family, the father takes on Oni duties while the children gleefully throw beans at him (or are scared by the Oni disguise). There are also versions of this event that take place in community centers and shrines in the nearby area. For instance, this year the Boston’s Children Museum is hosting an event called Make an Oni Mask for Setsu-bun on February 2nd and 3rd.

Learn more about Japanese festivals and the Shinto religion here:

Japanese Traditions


February 5, 2019 - Lunar/Chinese New Year 

The Lunar New Year is the beginning of a year whose months are coordinated by the cycles of the moon. The whole year may progress according to the lunar calendar or a lunisolar calendar.

The following East Asian Lunar New Year celebrations are, or were historically, based on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar (occurring in late January or early February):

  • Chinese New Year
  • Japanese New Year (prior to 1873)
  • Korean New Year (Seollal)
  • Mongolian New Year (Tsagaan Sar) – may be celebrated a month later
  • Tibetan New Year (Losar) – celebrated a month later
  • Vietnamese New Year (Tết)

These South Asian traditional lunisolar celebrations are observed according to the local lunisolar calendars. They are influenced by Indian tradition, which marks the solar new year on the sun's entry into Aries in April.

  • Ugadi and Gudi Padwa, Lunisolar new year's day celebrated by the Deccan people of India
  • Meitei Cheiraoba, Lunisolar new year's day celebrated by Meitei people
  • Kashmiri New Year (Navreh), Lunisolar new year's day celebrated by Kashmiri Pandits
  • Nyepi, in Bali, Indonesia

The Chinese New Year is also called Spring Festival, even though it is still winter for most of China when it is celebrated. That is because the holiday looks forward to spring. It is a 4000 year old tradition and the longest holiday of the year. The first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20. This year, the first day of the Lunar New Year will be on Tuesday, February 5, 2019 and this is the Year of the Pig.

In Chinese culture every twelve years represent a zodiac cycle, and every year within the cycle is represented by a different animal. The Pig is the twelfth of all the zodiac animals. In order, they are: rat (鼠—shǔ), ox (牛—niú), tiger (虎—hǔ), rabbit (兔—tù), dragon (龙—lóng), snake (蛇—shé), horse (马—mǎ), goat (羊—yang), monkey (猴—hóu), rooster (鸡—jī), dog (狗—gǒu), and pig (猪—zhū). 

There are many customs associated with the Chinese New Year. The evening of Chinese New Year's Eve is typically a time when families reunite for dinner. People also usually thoroughly clean there houses. The belief is that they are sweeping away bad fortune and making way for good fortune. It is also customary for celebrators to decorate windows and doors with red paper crafts. Red is the main color for the festival, as it is believed to be a lucky color. People even give red gifts and money in red envelopes. The decorations usually carry the themes of good fortune or happiness, wealth, and longevity. Since 2019 is the year of the Pig, decorations related to pigs will also be used. Firecrackers are also traditionally used in celebrating as well. 

Learn more about the Chinese New Year with the books below. 

Lunar New Year

Chinese New Year

The Tale of the Chinese Zodiac

Celebrate Chinese New Year With Paper Crafts

A previous version of this post referred only to the Chinese New Year, and not the Lunar New Year

If there's a particular celebration you or someone you know participates in that we missed, let us know by leaving a comment on this post. Or, if you think we got something wrong, please also comment and let us know. We try to be as accurate as possible, but if there's a mistake, we want to correct it.