Imbolc is the first festival of the Celtic calendar, celebrated during mid-winter as we look to the skies lightening in the east and watch and wait for signs of the coming spring. Gathering together on the 1st day of February to celebrate the returning energy of the Goddess.
Light the Fires
Rituals are held around the hearth fires and the sanctuary of hearth and home is celebrated. Candles are placed in the east to burn through the night, giving a guiding light to the returning Goddess so that she may bring new energy into your home.
Fire and purification are important aspects of this festival. The Goddess Brigid is one of the Goddesses celebrated at this time and she is associated with perpetual and sacred flames. If you travel to Ireland your will be able to visit her sanctuary in Kildare where 19 nuns maintain her fires throughout the year. The legend goes that only women could keep her flame alight and so her sacred flame at Kildare was surrounded by a hedge, which no man could cross, if a man did attempt to cross the hedge they either went insane, died or had their “lower leg” wither and fall off.
At Imbolc we light our hearth fires, eat special foods, skry and watch for omens for the coming year, light many candles around the home and gather around an outdoor bonfire if the weather permits.
The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
Originally dedicated to the goddess Brigid, in the Christian period it was adopted as St Brigid’s Day. In Scotland the festival is also known as Latha Fhèill Brìghde, in Ireland as Lá Fhéile Bríde, and in Wales as Gwyl Ffraed. In Irish mythology, Brigit or Brighit (“exalted one”) was the daughter of the Dagda (and therefore one of the Tuatha Dé Danann) and wife of Bres of the Fomorians. She had two sisters, also named Brighid, and is considered a classic Celtic Triple Goddess.
She is one of the most popular goddesses worshipped by the Celtic peoples, including the druids. Her stories and symbolism lived on, as she was held divine by Christians and Pagans alike and became known as Saint Brigid.
She was the Goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. She was the goddess of all things perceived to be of relatively high dimensions such as high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas; and of activities and states conceived as psychologically lofty and elevated, such as wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship (especially blacksmithing), healing ability, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare.
In Britain and on the continent her counterpart Brigantia seems to have been the Celtic equivalent of the Roman Minerva and the Greek Athena.
Brigid also has an incarnation known to practitioners of Voodoo – Maman Brigitte can be found as a “lwa” or spirit in Haiti and other countries which practice the Vodun religion. In this aspect, she is the Lady of the Cemetery and has the trademark red hair and her colours are purple, violet and black. She is the wife of the King of the Cemetery, sometimes known as Baron Samedi. Maman Brigitte may be characterised as a hard working, hard cursing woman who can swear a blue streak and enjoys a special drink made of rum laced with 21 hot peppers. Anyone suspected of faking a possession by her may be asked to drink her special rum or rub hot peppers on their genitals. Those who are not truly possessed are soon identified and the grave of the first woman buried in a cemetery is dedicated to Maman Brigitte. It is likely she came to the new world through indentured servants or Stuart loyalists, and she lives on in her descendants of the African Diaspora.
The earth turns as do the seasons and so the legend of Persephone is told – Persephone begins her return at this time of Imbolc, which pleases her mother Demeter, who then , being happy once again that her daughter has returned to her, begins to bring new life and new growth for the coming year. Persephone leaves behind her husband, Hades, in the underworld where she has spent the winter months and during this time the earth has lain barren. Upon her return the first signs of life begin to return to the earth. Snowdrops start to appear as if from nowhere and often blooming where the ground is still frosty and snow bound.
Tradition and Ritual
The maiden is honoured with the making of Straw Brideo’gas or corn dollies, are created from oat or wheat straw and placed in baskets with white flower bedding. Young girls then carry the Brideo’gas door to door and gifts are bestowed upon the image from each household.
At the traditional feast, the older women make special acorn wands for the dollies to hold, and in the morning the ashes in the hearth are examined to see if the magic wands left marks as a good omen.
Brigid’s Crosses are fashioned from wheat stalks and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year.
Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and a besom (broomstick) is place by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new.
Candles are lit and placed in each room of the house to honour the re-birth of the Sun.
In Ireland, the land was prepared to receive the new seed with spade and plough; new calves were born, and fishermen looked eagerly for the end of winter storms and rough seas to launch their boats again.
That Imbolc was an important time to the ancient inhabitants of Ireland can be seen at a number of Megalithic and Neolithic sites, such as at the Loughcrew burial mounds and the Mound of the Hostages in Tara, Ireland. Here, the inner chamber of the passage tombs are perfectly aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain. Similar to the phenomena seen at Newgrange, the rising Imbolc sun shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner chamber of the tomb.
A traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plough and in some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. Farmers decorated a plough and it is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. If the request was refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden ploughed up. In other areas, the plough is decorated and then Whiskey, the “water of life” is poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plough and also in the newly turned furrows of the ploughed field, as offerings to the nature spirits.
It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time as we are encouraging their spirits to return and become strong for this seasons harvest..
Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather prognostication, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens is perhaps a precursor to the American festival of Groundhog Day.
Bringing us home
So the seasons continue to turn and once more the earth becomes green as the seeds sown at Imbolc begin to grow and produce new seeds of their own, ensure that the cycle of life continues for another year.
We gather together to share warmth and the comfort of hearth and home and begin preparing for the re-awakening of the earth
Light a candle for your family and home this February 1st, leave it burning until it naturally burns out, in a place facing east within your home, lighting the way for new energies, beginnings and warmth to find their way to you.
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Leave a comment and tell me about your Imbolc experiences.