IMBOLC – The Festival of Lights (February 1st or 2nd)
Like the other main Celtic holidays, Imbolc is sometimes celebrated on it’s alternate date, astrologically determined by the sun’s reaching 15-degrees Aquarius, or Candlemas Old Style. Imbolc, also known as St. Brigit’s Day and February 2nd in the Catholic holidays as Candlemas, marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. It is tradition, after sunset, to light every lamp or candle in the house to honor the Sun’s rebirth. ‘Imbolc’ literally means ‘in the belly’ (of the Mother). It signifies the stirring and quickening of new life in the Goddess.
John Duncan’s St. Bride
The holiday is also known as ‘Brigit’s Day’, in honor of the Celtic fire-goddess Brighde, “the Bright One” and other variations – Bridget, Brigid, Bride and Brigantia. She was a Sun Goddess that presided over the hearth and the forge, over the inspiration and skill of sacred art and craft, and over the world of crops, livestock, and nature. In the Scottish Highlands where she was known as Bride, every morning the fire was kindled with an invocation to Bride:
“I will build the hearth
As Mary would build it.
The encompassment of Bride and of Mary
Guarding the hearth, guarding the floor,
Guarding the household all.”
The 10th-century Cormac’s Glossary states that Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, the “Great God” of the Tuatha de Danaan – “woman of wisdom…a goddess whom poets adored, because her protection was very great and very famous.” Since poetry, filid, was interwoven with the aspects of divination, the vates, Brigid was seen as the inspiration behind divination and prophecy. She is said to have had two sisters: Brigid the Physician and Brigid the Smith, but it is generally thought that all three were aspects of the single goddess.
In particular, she is important to sheep who begin to lamb at this time of year. The starting of the ewe’s lactation is a sign that Imbolc is near. ‘Oimelc’, another possible name for the day, means ‘milk of ewes’. She is closely connected with livestock and domesticated animals. The Irish legends state that she had two oxen called Fea and Feimhean who gave their names to a plain in Carlow and one in Tipperary. You can see Brigit above the south western door of the tower on Glastonbury Tor milking a cow.
INVOCATION TO SAINT BRIDE
“Dear Saint Bridget of the Kine
Bless these little fields of mine,
The pastures and the shady trees,
Bless the butter and the cheese,
Bless the cows with coats of silk
And the brimming pails of milk,
Bless the hedgerows, and I pray
Bless the seed beneath the clay,
Bless the hay and bless the grass,
Bless the seasons as they pass,
And heaven’s blessings will prevail,
Brigid – Mary of the Gael”
The early Church could not very easily call the Great Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they co-opted her and canonized her instead. She would become ‘Saint’ Brigit, patroness of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. Popular legend has it that this happened in Drumeague, County Cavan, at a place called “The Mountain of the Three Gods.” Here a stone head of Bride was worshipped as a triple deity, but with the coming of Christianity, it was hidden in a Neolithic tomb. Later it was recovered from its burial-place and mounted on a local church where it was popularly canonized as “St. Bride of Knockbridge.” The church’s explanation to the Irish peasants was that Brigit was actually an early Christian missionary, and that the miracles she performed ‘misled’ the common people into believing that she was a goddess. In some of the many legends, there is also a belief that Brigit was the ‘foster-mother’ of Jesus, Jesus having spent part of his boyhood in Britain and Ireland, or that she was the mid-wife at his birth.
At her shrine in Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses kept a perpetual flame burning in her honor. In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales wrote that when he visited the convent that there used to be twenty nuns keeping watch over the flame during Brigid’s lifetime; but since her death, nineteen took turns, one each night, in guarding the fire. When the twentieth night came, the nineteenth nun put the logs beside the fire and said: “Brigid, guard your fire. This is your night.” In the morning, the wood was found burned and the fire still alight. Annually, Brigit’s holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors and chandlers celebrated their special holiday. The early Church began celebrating ‘Candlemas’ as the day to bless all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year. The following day, St. Blaise’s Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, protecting them from colds, flu, and sore throats.
For some, the day does not signify the quickening of the mother in preparation of the re-birth of the spring but a purification of her following the birth of the new god during the winter solstice. It was believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving birth. Since Mary gave birth at the winter solstice, she wouldn’t be purified until February 2nd. Mary was supposed to have gone to the Temple at Jerusalem to make the traditional offering to purify herself. As she entered the temple, an old man named Simeon recognized the baby as the Messiah, and a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” So, once again we encounter the rebirth of the young Sun. Certainly, the service in the medieval church would have made much of this symbolism, playing upon images of the appearance of divine light in the darkness of human sin, of renewal and rebirth at this dreary time of the year. The Church called it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Wales, Candlemas was known as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, Mary’s Festival of the Candles, and was celebrated as late as the 19th century by setting a lighted candle in the windows or at the table on this night.
Carmichael, in his collection of old Scottish customs, tells us that on Bride’s Eve, the young girls of the village made a female figure from a sheaf of corn, and decorated it with colored shells, sparkling crystals, primroses and other early spring flowers and greenery. The brightest shell or crystal was placed over its heart to signify the star over the stable in Bethlehem that led Bride to the Christ child. The figure was named Bride or Brideag, ‘Little Bride’, and was carried about the town in procession by the young girls dressed in white and wearing their hair down, personifying the spirit of purity and youth. Everyone they visited had to pay homage to Bride and give her a gift such as a flower or a crystal, while the mothers gave bannocks, cheese or butter, reciprocating Bride’s lavish gifts of food. When the procession finished, the girls spent the night at a house where the ‘Little Bride’ watched over the girl’s preparation of the Bride feast for the next day. The young men of the town soon came knocking at the door and were let in to pay tribute to Bride, after which there were songs and dancing until the break of day. At first light, they all joined hands and sang a hymn to Bride, and shared out the remains of the feast among the poor women of the town. Brigid Cross Examples
John Duncan’s Coming of Bride
Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore. Thus we keep the tradition of ‘Groundhog’s Day’, a day to predict the coming weather, telling us that if the Groundhog sees his shadow, there will be ‘six more weeks’ of bad weather. This custom is ancient. An old British rhyme tells us that ‘If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.’
Another holiday that gets mixed up in this is February 14th or Valentine’s Day as February 14th has been used to celebrate Groundhog’s Day and by the Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the Feast of the Purification of Mary. Their celebration of the birth of Jesus on January 6th would cause a similar shift in the six week period that follows it, to the 14th.
Our Own Imbolc Candlelit Dinner- See Recipes
Whatever your beliefs, make a celebration of your own on this day. Create a special meal to share with the family, lit by candles set to brighten the mood and to welcome back and entreat happiness in the new year.