This year Imbolc came appropriately where I am, with a day of cold air but brilliant sunlight. Imbolc in the old calendar is the beginning of spring, and so it is associated with the growing Yang energies, expressed symbolically in fire and candlelight. Another name for it is Candlemas.
What does all of this have to do with us today? Well, perhaps many of you who have read old hokku will have noticed that they are first of all, seasonal. Each is set in a particular time of year. And second, you may have noticed that they often seem a bit “off” by the modern Western calendar. But they are not off by the old Western calendar, which was essentially the same as that used not only by the hokku writers of Japan, but also by the writers of Chinese poetry.
What this means today is that a return to the old calendar in our practice of writing puts us back in touch with the very old traditions of writing both hokku and “Chinese-style” verse. And so knowing a bit about the old calendar is very useful.
What is particularly pleasant is that to put ourselves back in touch with the old tradition, we need not turn to Asia, but rather simply to the old calendar system used in the British Isles from ancient times, the venerable “Wheel of the Year.”
Those who have read my previous articles here on the “Hokku Calendar” will recall that in writing hokku, spring begins with Imbolc, with Candlemas:
Our calendar begins with Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:
Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;
The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox: March 21 /22. In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;
Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer.
I give the Japanese divisions here only to show how closely they approximate the ancient Western Calendar, which is of great help to anyone who wishes to follow the old seasonal traditions of the hokku.
Our ancestors, who used the old calendar, were of course very concerned with times and seasons because they were farmers and herdsmen, and it was of vital importance to mark and know the changes in Nature. So Imbolc was the beginning of the “farming year,” and that is worth knowing today, when so many have forgotten that our very life comes from the earth and its produce.
We would do well to return to these old traditions that make us more in tune with Nature, more in harmony with the movements of sun and moon, as in the poem Prelude by J. M. Synge:
Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities and the sights of men,
lived with the sunshine and the moon’s delight.
I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The gray and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors and fens.
It may not seem that Spring has begun to those who live in very cold regions, but here in the Northwestern United States, which has a climate much like that both of the British Isles and of Japan, it seems to have begun right on schedule with the brilliant sun of Imbolc.