Imbolc: Celtic Spring and New Beginnings
Where I live, low temperatures this weekend will be in the low 30s. That’s pretty cold for South Florida! The northern U.S. is bracing for a Nor’easter, the winter version of a hurricane, with fierce winds and heavy snowfall. It hardly seems like spring is just a few days away. But it is. At least on the Celtic calendar. February 1st is the ancient fire festival of Imbolc. The day falls approximately halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and marks the start of the spring season.
Imbolc means “in the belly” and the Celts considered this a time when the world was pregnant with new life and new possibilities. This week’s post will explore the symbolism and folk traditions of this significant Celtic holy day. In addition, February 1st is also St. Brigid’s Day in Ireland, so the post will look at the stories and practices associated with both the saint and the goddess for whom many scholars believe she was named.
The Dawning of the Day
Dawn is the faint light that appears before sunrise, signaling an end to the darkness of night. Imbolc is like that. The Celtic year is divided into two halves: the light and the dark. The year begins in darkness at Samhain (November 1st) and moves into the light half at Beltane (May 1st). In the midst of cold and darkness, Imbolc celebrates the belief that the sun will return, bringing with it the light and warmth of a new day. Although the world may look dreary, even dead, under the snow and ice, seeds are preparing to burst into new life. It reminds me of the final verse from the song, “The Rose:”
Just remember in the winter / far beneath the bitter snows / lies the seed that with the sun’s love / in the spring becomes the rose.
But the feast day isn’t simply about holding onto hope. Traditionally, Imbolc is closely associated with the lambing season. Veterinarian James Herriot, in his All Creatures Great and Small book series, recounts kneeling on snowy-covered hillsides, buffeted by icy winds, helping ewes deliver fluffy little bundles of joy. He writes that lambing season was his favorite time of the year. That is a perfect symbol for the joy and promise of Imbolc.
Imbolc is about new life and new beginnings. It is about rebirth, renewal, and growth. Let go of the darkness of the past. It is time to make a fresh start. Imbolc is associated with inspiration, possibilities, and hidden potential. So, this Celtic festival offers an opportunity to start anew. Take stock of your dreams and goals then embark on the journey towards reaching them. Don’t worry if you have tried in the past but haven’t succeeded. Imbolc is the time to begin again.
Activities for Imbolc
Do something creative. Imbolc is connected with inspiration, imagination, and intuition.
Light candles to celebrate the coming of the sun. The sky may be overcast and the temperatures outside below freezing but lighting a deliciously scented candle can soothe the soul and remind you that the cold darkness won’t last forever.
Celebrate the coming of the spring by walking in nature (weather permitting) or bring nature to you. Decorate your house with fresh flowers and potted plants.
Give back to nature. Each year, it abundantly gives to us. This can be done in a several ways. Donate to a wildlife preserve or give money to plant a tree. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Even if you have little time and less money, you can always respect nature through recycling.
Plant seeds. Imbolc is a time for fertility and growth, so plant seeds, whether literally or metaphorically. Just reflect a bit on what you’d like to reap then go for it!
Take a relaxing bath. Imbolc is associated with purification and cleansing. So, you could give the house a spring cleaning or you could take a rejuvenating bath. I know which one I’d choose! Of course, you could do both. If you really wanted to.
The Goddess and the Groundhog
The American folk tradition of Groundhog Day has its roots, some scholars say, from a Scottish folklore belief related to Imbolc. For those who are unfamiliar with Groundhog Day, here’s a quick summary. On February 2nd, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog a resident of Pennsylvania zoo, is brought out of his burrow with great ceremony. According to the folklore, if Phil sees his shadow (immediately retreats into his burrow), there will be six more weeks of winter. If, however, he hangs around, warmer weather and the end of winter are on the way.
In Scottish folklore, the Cailleach, also known as Bearla, is the goddess of winter. She usually appears as an old hag and sends nasty winter weather. Winter, on the Celtic calendar, begins in November, at Samhain. So, by the end of January, Bearla’s starting to run low on firewood. On Brigid’s Day (February 1st), the goddess makes the weather fine for herself so she can go out and gather more firewood. If the weather is bad on February 1st, the folklore says, it means the goddess has overslept and missed out on getting more wood to keep herself warm, winter will end soon. Why she can’t go out on February 2nd, I couldn’t tell you.
Brigid: Goddess and Saint
You’ll notice in the story about the Cailleach, I mentioned she goes out on Brigid’s Day. At the beginning of this post, I said the Irish celebrate February 1st as the feast day of Saint Brigid, who is the national patron of the Republic of Ireland along with Saint Patrick. But the folklore about the firewood is from Scottish tradition.
Brigid is also the name of a goddess worshipped across the pre-Christian Celtic world. Over time, stories of the two Brigids have been conflated or stories about the saint have their roots in folklore about the goddess. In either case, many of the folklore and the traditions practiced on Imbolc are connected to Brigid. For example, Scottish folklore says that sometime between Imbolc and Beltane (May 1st), the young goddess of summer, Brigid, defeats Bearla the Cailleach. The old hag goes into a slumber and Brigid revitalizes the world, bringing back the sun and plants. Below are folklore customs celebrating Brigid.
Traditional Activities for Brigid’s Day
Visit Holy Wells. Take a little water from the well and drink it or wash your hands in it to ensure health in the upcoming year. Some people fill small bottles with the water to bring home to bless and heal the sick. Be sure to leave an offering of thanksgiving. This can be coins thrown into the well, but many people leave flowers.
Bake Bannock Bread, a Scottish quick bread made from barley or oats. A slice is given to each woman in the family for good luck. A second loaf is baked and left outside as an offering to Brigid for her help and protection. Click here for a recipe.
Hang Brigid’s Cloak (a white cloth) outside on a tree limb overnight. According to the lore, Brigid will come by and bless it. The cloth then is used throughout the year to cover any sick family member in order to restore them quickly to good health.
Make a Corn Doll Bride and parade her through the house to welcome Brigid. The doll is then put to bed in a basket. A white stick tipped with an acorn is laid beside her to represent the groom. It is not difficult to recognize this as a pagan fertility ritual, but the practice continued for centuries in Christian Ireland and Scotland.
Make a St. Brigid’s Cross. This is the best-known of the Brigid’s Day / Imbolc folk customs. It is still popular today. Rushes are woven into a cross then hung in the house to protect the family from harm.
To learn more about the goddess and the saint, click here to read my post from last Imbolc.
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Slan go foil!