A Celtic Spring: Brigid and Imbolc
We’re halfway through the darkness. The Celtic year is divided into two halves: the dark and the light. The dark half began at Samhain (October 31-November 1). This Monday, February 1st is the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc which marks the start of spring (on the Celtic calendar) and the coming of the sun. February 1st is also the feast day of Brigid, patron saint of Ireland (along with Patrick), and Brighid, the Celtic goddess of fire. These three: Imbolc, the saint’s day, and the goddess’ feast day all herald the hope of spring. They also bring a whole host of Celtic folk traditions with them.
Each of the four Celtic fire festivals marks the start of a new season. In the midst of what contemporary westerners would consider winter (in the northern hemisphere), Imbolc marks the start of spring. Of course, the weather can always disagree with the calendar. Celtic folklore acknowledges this. According to the lore, the Cailleach, goddess of winter, goes out on February 1st to get more wood for her fire. She creates fine weather to make her outing easier. So, if the weather is fair on February 1st, it means she’s got her firewood and you might as well snuggle in because the cold weather’s staying for a while longer. If, however, the weather is bad (snowing and blowing), it means the goddess has overslept, and missed gathering more wood, so she’ll end cold soon. This story should sound familiar to Americans.
February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the U.S. On this day, according to American folklore, if Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog who lives in a zoo in Pennsylvania, comes out of his burrow and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, warmer weather is on the way.
The similarity between the Celtic folk story and the American one is not coincidental. Groundhog Day has its roots in Imbolc. The February 1st / February 2nd date is not a coincidence either. The date is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The winter solstice is the shortest, darkest day of the year due to the tilt of the North Pole away from the sun. At spring equinox, the North Pole starts tilting towards the sun again. Thus the ancient Celtic belief that Imbolc, February 1st / 2nd, marks the beginning of the return of the light and sun is scientifically accurate.
Imbolc represents new beginnings, renewal, rebirth, and new growth. Because of that, it is also associated with possibilities and hidden potential. The start of spring, it also represents fertility, childhood, and innocence, as well as insight, inspiration, purification and cleansing. Giving the house a good spring cleaning is a folk tradition connected with Imbolc. This activity stems from the theme of purification but is associated as well with the idea of out with the old to make room for the new. There are a number of other folk traditions for Imbolc but many are overlap with traditions for St. Brigid’s Day and the ancient worship of the goddess.
While most people associate the name Brigid with Ireland, the goddess of Celtic mythology was popular and worshipped across all Celtic lands, particularly in Scotland and Brittany. She was the young, beautiful goddess of summer, fire, inspiration, healing, childbirth and many other things. Each year, according to mythology, she defeated the Cailleach and enabled the return of the sun.
At Kildare, Ireland, there was a sacred place dedicated to Brighid, the goddess. There, virgins consecrated to her service tended an eternal flame in her honor. Only wood from hawthorn trees could be used for this fire. The hawthorn is, in Celtic tradition, a sacred faerie tree which is to be treated with the utmost respect.
Brighid is associated with Beltane (May 1st) as well as Imbolc but her feast day is February 1st. On this day, people honored her by visiting sacred wells, dressing them with flowers and greenery as well as leaving offerings (usually coins or silver) for the goddess. Water from these wells was believed to have healing powers.
St. Brigid is the co-patron of Ireland along with St. Patrick. She also is the patron of midwives, cattle, dairymaids, Irish nuns, newborns and seven million other things. Yes, that’s hyperbole but it’s a really long list. Was she a historical woman or just a Christianized version of the Celtic goddess? Scholars disagree so I’ll leave to you to decide. Here is her story.
Her father was a chieftain. Her mother was his slave whom he got pregnant. When his wife found out, she was none too happy and made him sell the woman (who was still pregnant) to a Druid. Brigid, thus, was born into slavery. For reasons unmentioned, Brigid’s mother couldn’t nurse her, so the child was suckled by a cow.
Brigid’s mother was a Christian and brought her daughter up in that faith. The girl embraced Christianity and, to practice charity, constantly gave things to the poor. Unfortunately, many of these things did not belong to her. Once, she gave away her mother’s entire supply of butter. In her defense, she replaced it miraculously through prayer. But that was once. Things weren’t always replaced nor were they always her mother’s possessions. Brigid gave away her master’s things too. Finally, he got fed up and gave her back to her dad, the chieftain. But she gave his stuff away too, so he decided either to sell her or marry her (stories vary) to the King of Leinster (or of Ulster—stories vary).
While her dad was busy negotiating with the king, Brigid gave his majesty’s jeweled sword to a beggar. The king may have been furious but, luckily for Brigid, he was a Christian. He forgave her, respected her charity, and ordered her set free.
Brigid may have been saintly but she wasn’t meek. She told the king she didn’t want to marry anyone because she had made a vow to belong to Jesus alone. This again, earned the king’s respect. While she had his good favor, she asked him to grant her some land on which she could found a monastery. At this point, the king laughed and said the equivalent of “Yeah, I don’t think so.” Brigid countered with, “Oh, please. Just give me as much land as my cloak covers.” The king figured this was a small ask and it would make him look good, so he agreed. Brigid then gathered a few female companions. She laid her cloak on the ground and the women pulled until it covered over 100 acres. The king may have felt duped, but he kept his word and gave her the land.
Her monastery became a center of learning and the arts, a place of light and inspiration. It was located, according to legend, at Cil-dara, which means “place of the oak.” Oak was the Druids most sacred tree. Cil-dara is now called Kildare and, you might be interested to know, St. Brigid’s monastery was built on the site of the aforementioned shrine of the goddess, Brighid. Until the time of Henry VIII, a perpetual fire was maintained there. Under the rule of Elizabeth I, the monastery was burned down. In 1996, Sister Mary Minchin, in devotion to the saint, relit the flame at what remains of the monastery. In addition to promoting learning and the arts, St. Brigid was reputed, like the goddess, to be a healer.
Folk Traditions for Brigid’s Day
As with the worship of the goddess, visiting holy wells is one of the traditional activities for St. Brigid’s Day. People take a little water from the well to drink or to wash with. The water is said to have healing properties. Other St. Brigid’s Day folk traditions include:
--tying ribbons to the sacred tree next to the holy well (apparently all holy wells have one nearby)
--baking bannock bread, a Scottish quick bread, usually made from barley or oats. A slice is given to each of the women in the family for good luck. An additional loaf is baked and left outside for Brigid.
--hanging a white cloth, representing Brigid’s cloak, on a tree branch overnight. The lore says that Brigid comes by and blesses it then. Throughout the year, the cloth is used to cover sick members of the family to help them return to good health.
--women dress corn dolls as brides and parade them through the house to welcome Brigid (saint or goddess). The doll is then put to bed in a basket with a white wand tipped with an acorn to represent her groom. This custom is thought to have origins in a pagan fertility ritual.
--The best known custom for Brigid’s Day is to weave rushes into a Brigid’s cross then hang it in the house to protect the family from harm.
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Happy Spring! Slan go foil!
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