Imbolc | Candlemas

Imbolc – A Celebration of New Beginnings

Light your candles and plant your seeds as life emerges from the land once more

Imbolc is a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring arriving. Many Rituals are held, involving hearth fires, special foods, divination or simply watching for omens, a great deal of candles, and perhaps an outdoor bonfire if the weather permits. 

This festival was traditionally associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, soon to give birth to the spring lambs, which could vary by as much as two weeks before or after the start of February.

In some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be 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 also considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time.

And 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.

Brigid’s Story

Imbolc is one of the four principal festivals of the Irish calendar, celebrated either at the beginning of February or at the first local signs of Spring. Originally dedicated to the goddess Brigid, in the Christian period it was adopted as St Brigid’s Day.

She had two sisters, also named Brighid, and is considered a classic Celtic Triple Goddess.

Fire and purification are another important aspect of this festival and the Goddess Brigid was usually associated with perpetual and sacred flames, such as the one maintained by 19 nuns at her sanctuary in Kildare, Ireland. The tradition of women tending her sacred flame is far older than Christianity, and goes back to a time when the flame was maintained by priestesses. 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. 

As one of the most popular goddesses worshiped by the Celtic peoples, including the druids, many of her stories and symbology survived in the persona of Saint Brigid.  One of Brigid other guises is as the goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft.  As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.

Her British and continental counterpart Brigantia seems to have been the Celtic equivalent of the Roman Minerva and the Greek Athena.  Also Brigid 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, which she occasionally does. 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.

In this season the maiden is honoured. 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.  Afterwards 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 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.

Mythology and Legend

In Scotland, Imbolc fell in the middle of the period known as the Wolf-month; it was also known as the Dead-month. The Old Woman of winter, the Cailleach, is reborn as Bride, Young Maiden of Spring, fragile yet growing stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, turning scarcity into abundance. The land seems dead and barren but new stirrings of life begin to appear, lambs were born and the soft rain brought new grass, ravens begin to build their nests and larks were said to sing with a clearer voice. 

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.

The earth turns as do the seasons and as the legend of Persephone is told, this is the time she will return to the earth and her mother Demeter, bringing with her new life and new growth for the coming year and leaving behind her husband, Hades, in the underworld where she has spent the winter months and 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.

In Scotland, Imbolc fell in the middle of the period known as the Wolf-month; it was also known as the Dead-month. The Old Woman of winter, the Cailleach, is reborn as Bride, Young Maiden of Spring, fragile yet growing stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, turning scarcity into abundance. The land seems dead and barren but new stirrings of life begin to appear, lambs were born and the soft rain brought new grass, ravens begin to build their nests and larks were said to sing with a clearer voice.

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.

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

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