Happy Imbolc everyone. Known as Imbolc or Candlemas, the 1st of February is one of the four great festivals of the Celtic year. It marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring. At this time the first signs of spring are appearing in nature – buds are beginning to appear on trees, animals are waking up from hibernation and early spring flowers like snowdrops and daffodils are beginning to bloom. The day is also known as Oimelc which is Gaelic for “ewe’s milk.” The ewe’s are lactating and the lambs are beginning to be born. Milking can begin again, which in ancient times, when food was hard to come by in winter, offered people a lifeline. The sun is getting stronger and the days are noticeably longer. It is time to celebrate the awakening and rebirth of the earth, as well as new beginnings in our own lives.
In the tale of Tochmarc Emire, in which Emer is wooed by the hero Cu Chulainn, Emer talks of “Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning.” Historian Ronald Hutton says that “The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. He does point out that is has something to do with milking as ewes began to lactate and that “it is reasonably certain that behind this alleged holy woman [St Bride]…stands a pagan goddess of the same name.” He further says that there is uncertainty whether she is one goddess or a triple one, but in legend she is “associated with learning, poetry, prophesying, healing and metal-working, and was in general the most pleasant Irish female deity.” A fire was kept burning at her Kildare shrine during medieval times, but Hutton points out that in legend, the goddess “was not especially associated with fire.” By the 1700’s it was believed that she visited households on the eve of her feast to bless people if they were virtuous and many customs of this time are recorded. For example, feasts to mark the last night of winter, bread and butter left outside on a windowsill as an offering, Crosses made of rushes hung up over the door as a sign of welcome or put in stables so the animals would be blessed, and a bed of twigs made so she could rest. There was also a custom of putting up cloth or ribbon the windowsill overnight for her to bless.
However there are other festivals associated with this time that have helped shape how we celebrate it today as modern pagans. Hutton’s book on the Stations of the Sun looks at Candlemas, a Christian feast of purification with a ceremony of kindling candles. He says this was a “celebration of returning light” and that later medieval services use images of “rebirth of light in the dark time of the year” and the “promise of better times not far away.” Meanwhile Bede said that the pagan Anglo-Saxons called February “Sol Monath” ie cake-month as it was a time to offer special cake to the gods.
Historian Peter Berresford Ellis points out that according to Rennes Dinnsenchus, St Brigit was a “ban drui” and was said to have been nourished on the magical milk of Otherworldly cows. She later became a Christian and created a religious settlement at Dumcree. He says that in a biography of her in 650AD, her “cult was mixed with the Irish goddess of fertility, Brigit, after whom she had obviously been named” and that her feast day was “grafted onto the festival of Imbolc….sacred to the goddess Brigit on January 31st and February 1st. He explains that this feast was connected with ewes coming into milk and so “was a pastoral or fertility festival.” The goddess Brigit was a daughter of The Dagda and was a “divinity of healing, poetry and arts and crafts” as well as divination.
There are many customs recorded throughout history in Gaelic countries which honour her and may date back to the time of the ancient Celts. In Scotland, a cold day on Imbolc meant warmer weather was soon to come. Offerings of milk were made to the earth and porridge to the sea to ensure a good yield of fish and seaweed in the coming year. A St Brigit doll was made of corn and dressed elaborately e.g. with snowdrops and primroses. A bed was made for her and she was invited into the house, while a white birch want was placed alongside the bed to represent the wand she used to make vegetation start growing again. Ashes in the hearth were smoothed and left overnight. In the morning, these were checked for evidence she had visited and if not incense was burned to her. In Ireland, celebrations were similar. Imbolc represented not only the beginning of spring but also the fishing season as the storms of the sea were supposed to have been over by then. While some farmers would turn over a sod of earth in a symbolic act to hurry up warmth, the feast was known as a “holiday from turning” and so any type of turning such as weaving, ploughing and spinning was forbidden out of respect for Brigit who it was said had taught women how to spin wool. The house was cleaned thoroughly beforehand and sained or warded, while water was brought from a sacred well to sprinkle around the house. A feast on the evening included sowans, apple cake, dumplings, colcannon and most importantly, butter. Later mashed potato with butter and onions was added. A place was laid at the table for St Brigit and a portion of food left out for her. Items such as ribbons or cloth were left on trees and bushes outside for her to bless and the fire was kept burning with the door open so she could come in and warm herself. St Brigit’s crosses were made of rushes or straw and hung up for protection. It was also a time of charity and hospitality.
This time can be seen as a feast of the hearth, a time to celebrate the rekindling of the world’s hearth fire and the return of light, a time to purify the home, a time to prepare for spring planting by blessing tools and fields, and a time to give offerings to the Earth Mother. Alaric Albertsson in Travels through Middle Earth suggests that this is a good time to honour Hertha, the Anglo-Saxon earth goddess. Meanwhile, Neo-pagans celebrate by doing a spring clean, eating spicy or dairy foods, honouring Brigit and placing candles in all the windows of the home to represent the growing strength of the sun. I like to go for a walk on this day to search for the first signs of spring – especially snowdrops. Imbolc is also a time to create poetry and songs or to make candles for the coming year. It is traditionally the time to begin buying seed potatoes and chitting them ready for planting.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.
Tairis – http://www.tairis.co.uk
Gaol Naofa – http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/
Gaelic Folkway – http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm