The Cailleach, finally

It’s snowing as I sit typing this, here in Columbus. This would normally be a fairly uninteresting opening most years: it’s February in Ohio, after all. But this has been a very warm winter for us. That’s true for much of the country, of course, and for the globe, but I’m feeling it especially poignantly right now, since the winter storms that have blanketed friends in the upper Midwest, the Northeast — even the northern half of our own state — have encountered an unmoving bubble of warmth in Central Ohio, and at best only rained.

Usually we start getting occasional snow by late November, and by the time January comes we’re having bitterly cold temperatures and frequent white blankets covering the land. In those years, it’s easy to curse the snow and ice, to dwell on its inconveniences. But for me, this alarmingly warm winter has made me especially aware of the lack I feel, amid all the folks praising the temperate air. It’s almost two weeks after Imbolc, and yet this is only the fourth sticking snowfall that I can recall this season. The land feels wrong; it’s almost physically painful not to feel the cold.

And while I’ll happily talk about the ecological implications of these weather patterns, that’s not my point here. The lack I feel is spiritual, a yearning. Every year, when the first snow falls, I gather some in a bowl with a little whiskey, take it inside, and thus welcome the Cailleach Bheur into my home. The Cailleach is fearsome, certainly, hard and biting and bitter and even cruel. But she is also, when you step out of the gale and into the lee, an enveloping spirit of rest and quiet, of snowbound stillness and dormancy. Over the years I’ve gone from attempting to propitiate her to actively welcoming her in, thrilling in the turning of the seasons as she sweeps in, casting handfuls of snow from her creel and blessing the trees with glistening gowns of finest glass.

But it’s hard to feel the Cailleach in the rain.

A large bare tree dominates a snowy streetscape, its thick, clustered branches covering the sidewalk ahead, as streaks of quickly falling snow swirl around it.

And so through December, through January, I’ve been longing for the return of the Cailleach, for the clarity her dry chill brings to the air, the way her ice crystals dance around the sun in a brilliant January sky, the way her pure white tartan of snow glows beneath the pendulous frost moon. When we finally had snowfall last week, I stepped onto the back stoop, my bare feet sinking into the powder, and reverently pressed snow into a bowl. Taking it inside to my altar, giving offerings, my resting hand softly leaving its impression on the cold white scoop, I nearly cried with joy.

I know it’s after Imbolc, and I should be eagerly awaiting the return of Brigid and her spring as her wintry counterpart finally quits the battle. But this afternoon I’ve been walking downtown, mile after mile in the falling snow, listening to songs about the winter hag, feeling my heart lift and fill with the bounty of the Swift and Biting One. And I don’t believe my equally beloved goddess of fire even minds — she, too, knows the cycle of seasons, and knows the Winter Queen should have her day before the springtime’s triumph. May her reign be brief, but may it be full.

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