Seasonal Celebrations

Imbolc History and Modern Ways to Celebrate

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February 1st – February 2nd

The word Imbolc or Imbolg is pronounced im-bolg. It’s also called Lá Fhéile Bríde in Irish Gaelige or Là Fhèill Brìghde in Scottish Gaelic. Imbolc means “in the womb or belly” or even “lactation”. Representative of the feminine, fertility, sexual activity, birth, purification, healing and renewal.


History:


Imbolc marks the beginning of the spring when the very first tiny shoots of green start appearing. The earth becomes a literal scene of rebirth and regrowth. Sheep and cows were pregnant and the first baby lambs and cows were being born. The animals were beginning to produce milk which was sacred to the Celts and may have meant the difference between life or death when winter food stores were running out by this time in the season. The Hill of Tara in Ireland is aligned with the rising sun of Imbolc. The Irish Brigid is known variously as St. Brigid, Brighid, Brigit, Bridget, Bride, she is equivalent to the British Brigantia, Greek Athena or the Roman Minerva. Her name is Sant Ffraid in Wales. She is associated with fire, spring, fertility, healing, poetry, arts and crafts, cattle, and other livestock, sacred water wells and smithcraft. She watched over the home, hearth, livestock and women when they were in labor. She may have been somewhat of a sun goddess given her symbolism of fire and healing. Even the Brigid’s cross, being a widdershins swastika is a very ancient sun symbol.

Brigid is thought to mean “exalted one”. She was the daughter of the Dagda (the great father and good god of Ireland) and The Morrigan. Legend says she was born at the exact moment of daybreak with rays of sunlight beaming from her head. She was fed the milk from a sacred cow in the Otherworld and it was said that wherever she walked, small flowers and shamrocks would appear. Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 10th century by Christian monks, says that Brigid was the goddess of poetry and “the goddess whom poets adored” and that she had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith. This suggests she was another triple deity and certainly one of the most powerful in Irish history. She became the wife of Bres, with whom she had three sons. The marriage of Brigid and Bres was an unsuccessful attempt at an alliance to bring peace between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians. Bres was half Fomorian and half Tuatha De Danann but he favored his Fomorian kin and was an unfavored king. He made the Tuatha De Danann work as slaves, forced Ogma to carry firewood and the Dagda to dig trenches around their forts. When Nuada gained his hand back and reclaimed the kingship, he banished Bres who took refuge with his father Balor and led the Fomorians in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh. Ruadan, Brigid’s eldest son became a wonderful smith like his mother and killed the Fomorian’s smith during the battle. However, before the Fomorian died he managed to kill Ruadan as well. Brigid’s grief was so enormous, her lamentations could be heard throughout all of Ireland. They were so heart wrenching that both sides stopped fighting and forged a peace. Henceforth, Brigid invented keening, a combination of weeping and singing, while mourning. She is credited in the same passage with inventing a whistle used for night travel. Mourning for the dead by keening became a profession for the Celts and women were paid to do this at funerals up until at least the 18th century. She had two oxen, Fe and Men, that graze on a plain named after them, Femen. She also possessed the king of boars, Torc Triath, and Cirb, king of sheep, from whom Mag Cirb is named. The animals were said to cry out a warning if there was trouble and this is why Brigid is also considered the guardian of domesticated animals. She had an apple orchard in the Otherworld and her bees would bring their magical nectar back to earth. 

In the Middle Ages, Brigid was syncretized with the Christian Saint of the same name. February 1st is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church as St. Brigid’s Day, in Ireland on St. Brigid’s Eve. The legends of Saint Brigid are equally compelling. In some Christianized tales, she was the midwife of Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. It is said in the Carmina Gadelica (1860-1909) that she “presided over the different seasons and that Bride with her white wand would breath life into the mouth of the dead winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sights and the laughter of Spring.” Brigid is said to have founded her own church in Kildare. The thirteenth-century cathedral that is still standing today was supposedly built on top of the original structure built in the 6th century. One of the more popular tales of St. Brigid involves two lepers who visited her sacred well in Kildare. They asked to be cured and she instructed them they were to bathe each other until their skin was healed. After the first one became healed, the other suddenly felt repulsed and would not continue bathing him. Brigid, angered by his reaction caused his leprosy to return. She gently placed her mantle around the other leper and immediately cured him. Her magical cloak became weaved into countless tales through the generations.

It was believed that she travelled around the countryside on the eve of her festival, blessing the people, home, crops and their livestock. In order to receive her blessings, you left her food, butter or drink as well as a bed to rest. Some ritually invited her in by opening their door widely and calling out to her. A large piece of cloth, cloak or Brat Brid as it was called was also left out on a window sill for blessing. Both the butter and brat were then thought to be imbued with her healing powers. Brigid crosses or brideog dolls were typically made and displayed in her honor. The cross was made of woven rushes and was thought to keep evil and hunger from homes where it was displayed. Also occurring on the eve before or the night of Imbolc, the hearth fire was ritually extinguished. However, before it was put out, a special candle was lit from it. The woman of the house swept the hearth, laid a new fire and used the blessed candle to light it. Tending the fire, morning and night was the task of the woman of the house as women invoked the presence of Brigid. Divine water wells, although commonly visited at every festival, were visited more frequently at this time and offerings were left there as well. Ireland is full of wells and springs named after her that were thought to have curative properties. This is no surprise considering that water too represented healing. The water would often be used to cleanse any various number of things including a ritual bath of one’s self, sprinkling the head, the hands and feet. Because it was thought that Brigid rewarded any offering to her, coins were often tossed into these wells which may have been the forerunner of the modern custom of throwing a coin into a fountain while making a wish. In the old days of Ireland, groups of young people dressed up in costume and went from house to house carrying the Brideog. The young girls of the town would get together and make the Brideog doll. Then, the Biddies or Biddie Boys and Girls would travel from house to house entertaining those they called on with songs and dancing. They’d be rewarded with candy, cookies or coins. Her literal or allegorical ancient motherly love and protection inspires us to this day. The essence of Imbolc is the feminine and rejoicing in universal growth and new life beginning to be observed in nature.


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One surviving song or chant from the Carmina Gadelica (1860-1909) is as follows:

“Feast of the Bride, feast of the maiden. Melodious Bride of the fair palms. Thou Bride fair charming. Pleasant me the breath of thy mouth. When I would go among strangers, though thyself wert the hearer of my tale.”


Ways to Celebrate:


Set up your altar accordingly: Decorate your home or space with seasonal symbols and colors of nature. Common decorations are the lamb, serpents, Brigid’s cross, feminine symbols and the colors white, red and green. Find unique items that have strong symbology for you.

Do a spring cleaning: Spring cleaning is a literal representation of the purification of our life during Imbolc. The house should be cleaned top to bottom. If you have a fireplace, that should be cleaned very well. Clean and wash all sheets and blankets on your bed. Reorganize your closet. The house should be symbolically swept to clean out the “cob webs” of life. Once everything is cleaned, a ritual smudging is completed, fresh candle or hearth is lit. Don’t let this overwhelm you. This should be a positive experience. Take one thing at a time and clean over many days or weeks if need be. Hire help or reach out to a family member also if need be. Whatever you don’t finish now can be completed near or before the spring equinox. Again, ending with a symbolic sweeping.

Use feminine affirmations: Find ways to celebrate the essence of “feminine”. This could be doing something nurturing like volunteering at a local animal shelter, find unique ways to express love and caring for your closest loved ones or do something extra thoughtful for your romantic partner.

Get rid of clutter: Get rid of items and clutter you no longer feel a connection to or need. If you have kids, you could included them by letting them go through all of their clothes, toys and books to find unwanted or outgrown items. Take items to your local goodwill store or put it aside for a future yardsale.

Order and bless seeds: Now would be the time to order and ritually bless your garden or flower bed seeds. Ritually imbue them with Brigid’s fire and light encouraging growth and health for the coming season.

Visit a body of water: Visit any body of water and meditate, commune with Brigid or nature itself. Focus your thoughts and intentions for the coming season.

Try your hand at fire scrying: Since Brigid is partially representative of fire, try fire scrying in which you stare into the fire for the purpose of divination. Ask yourself questions you are seeking answers to and your thoughts, images or visions may be intuitively interpreted.

Take a cleansing bath: Take a simple cleansing bath using special candles, incense or bath products that have a unique meaning for you.

Drink a cleansing drink: Along with cleaning our home, we can apply the same ideas to our own bodies. Create your own cleansing drink with various wines and a spell. Do an herbal tea cleanse. Start a specific vitamin regime you’ve been putting off. Bring a new food into your diet adding more healthy choices. Drink a refreshing vitamin, veggie or fruit smoothie for a week. It’s really up to you! It could be anything representative of “cleansing” and encouraging a healthier and happier you!

Create a craft: Make a “Brigid’s cross” or Brideog to display in your home.

Connect with others: Prepare an Imbolc dinner. Listen to appropriate seasonal music. Light candles. Some recipe suggestions would be Boxty pancakes, dumplings and colcannon, soda bread and lemon cake. Enjoy your family and friends. Cook something different you’ve never tried before or try a new wine! Go out to a restaurant you’e never been too. Call up and meet friends or family you haven’t seen in a while to encourage meaningful and new conversation. Attend a pagan social event. Mark this season with something unique to make it feel like more of a special occasion.

Write in your journal: You could write to yourself about all of the positive things you love about your life, your friends and family. Read it out loud. Internalize it. Feel renewed. Keep it in a safe place but readily available to read again when you need a reminder.

Make an offering: Traditionally, one would leave butter, honey or alcohol outside for Brigid or in your altar. You could also give back to nature by donating to a charity or participate in a community, park or coastal clean up program. Put out bird seed or a basket of fruit, berries or nuts for local wildlife. Prepare a basket of seasonal items or a small seasonal gift to give to someone in need, your neighbor, your child’s teacher, a community leader or the mail carrier. Buy someone’s coffee or meal. Be creative in your offering and method of giving back.

Kindle a bonfire: Have a fire outside if possible, although indoors is fine as well. Drink a “cleansing” ritual drink while you’re sitting around your fire reflecting on all the ways you feel renewed. Many people write a list of their goals or wishes for the coming season, then ceremoniously burn it in the fire sending those wishes into the otherworld.

Nature walk and meditation: Take a meditative walk through nature enjoying the new life awakening from hibernation. Observe, feel and internalize the earth’s fertile and feminine regrowth of the spring season. If so desired, collect natural objects to build crafts at home, add to a spring inspired altar or make a temporary nature mandala during your outing. Take walks as needed to reconnect. You could also visit a farm and connect with the new spring animal babies. Use all of this new life and rebirth to bring inspiration and renewal into your life.


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 “May you be under Brigit’s mantle!”

Irish blessing

For more information check out Brigid: Meeting The Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge and Healing Well by Morgan Daimler or Tending Brigid’s Flame: Awaken to the Celtic Goddess of Hearth, Temple and Forge by Lunaea Weatherstone



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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.

 

 

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