Imbolc is a time to celebrate the reawakening of the earth. Spring is not yet here officially, and there is still plenty of time for further frosts and wintery weather, perhaps even the odd flurry of snow. Yet, the season is crisp, bright and everything feels fresh and clean. There is always a wonderful sparkling quality to the light at this time of year, and people tend to feel more invigorated as the days begin to lengthen once more. Deep in the belly of the earth, life is stirring. The sap begins to rise in the trees, and blind shoots are about to break through the frosted ground. Snowdrops start to nod their beautiful pure-white heads in the woodland, signifying that winter is now almost over. The celebration of Imbolc marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring (Vernal) equinox. Even though it is effectively midwinter, and often one of the coldest days of the year, this festival celebrates the beginning of the spring quarter. Imbolc is usually celebrated on the 2nd February, though this year it falls on 1st. Imbolc is known by various names: ‘Imbolg’, meaning ‘full belly’- referring literally to the new lambs in the womb at this time of the year, ‘Oimelc’, meaning ‘ewe’s milk’ the sustenance of the lambs, the Festival of Brigid (pronounced ‘breed’), and Candlemas. It is one of the four main festivals of the pre-Christian Celtic calendar, one of the main Wiccan Sabbats, and was subsequently adopted as St Brigid’s Day in the Christian period. Imbolc is also thought to be the predecessor of the Christian holiday of Candlemas, and also of the American holiday, Groundhog Day.
Imbolc Folklore - Origins
The festival of Imbolc was traditionally connected to the beginning of lactation of the ewes, about to give birth to new spring lambs. The name, in the Irish language, means “in the belly” (i mbolg), and is also a Celtic term for Spring. Imbolc was an important time to the ancient inhabitants of Ireland. The Mound of the Hostages is a megalithic ‘passage tomb’ and is the oldest monument on the hill of Tara, dating to about 2,500BC. The passage is relatively short, and just inside the entrance on the left is a large decorated ‘orthostat’, or standing stone. Here, the inner chamber is aligned perfectly with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain in such a way that it lights up the passage with a surprisingly bright light at these times. A Festival of Fire and Light Many cultures have a Festival of Light, and for the Celts it was Imbolc. It is traditional at sunset to light every lamp or many candles in the house - if only for a few moments. Not only were all the candles in the house lit in honour of the Sun’s rebirth, but also a great bonfire that was built in honour of Brigid, the Goddess of Spring. This is a Sabbat of purification (after the enclosed indoors life, and long sleep of Winter), through the renewing power of the Sun. Fire represents the sun, our own illumination and inspiration as much as light and warmth. Thus the lighting of a candle or fire is symbolic of our reawakening. In lighting the flames we are renewing our life-energy and fuelling our spirit. Traditions, especially in Europe, centred around the making of candles. It was considered that candles made at this time were more potent and especially lucky.
The Goddess Brigit
According to the Irish Calendar, Imbolc is variously known as the Feast of St. Brigid (Secondary Patron of Ireland) and Lá Feabhra - the first day of Spring. Brigit is also a great Irish Goddess of Fire. At her shrine, in the ancient Irish capital of Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses kept a perpetual flame burning in her honour, which is still lit to this day at Imbolc. Brigit is the Goddess of the fire of the hearth, heart, home and forge. She is the patroness of smithcraft, poetry, song, healing, and also of midwifery - an important and natural association as Imbolc celebrates the fertility of the earth and women. One folk tradition on St. Brigid’s Day (or Imbolc) is that of raking the ashes. Before going to bed on Imbolc eve, each household completely doused its hearth and raked the ashes smooth. In the morning, they look for some kind of mark on the ashes, a sign that Brigid has passed that way in the night or morning. Since Brigid represents the Life Force that will bring people from the depths of winter into spring, her presence is very important to her followers at this time of year. Brigit is seen to bless all livestock, and the fields into which the crops are sown. At this time, all agricultural tools and seeds were blessed, and if Brigit had visited, your harvest was assured. Another equally important tradition is that of Brigid’s Bed. Young girls would craft a female figure from a sheaf of corn, and decorate it with early spring flowers, greenery and other decorative items. The figure was named Bride or Brideag, meaning ‘Little Bride’. The older women would make ‘Bride’s Bed’ a vessel in which Bride would lie. Bride was then carried around the town by the young girls, dressed in white and wearing their hair loose about them as a symbol of purity and youth. Each home they visited had to pay homage to Bride and give her a gift, while the mothers of each household gave bread, cheese or butter, in honour of Bride’s blessing of the fields and livestock and thus her gifts of food to the community. When the procession finished, the young women spent the night at a house where the ‘Little Bride’ watched over the girls’ 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, merriment and dancing until the dawn. 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.
Groundhog Day Elements of the original celebration of Imbolc can found in both American custom and in Christianity. In modern America the Groundhog Day custom also falls on February 2nd, and is a day that is supposed to provide the key to the weather for the remainder of the winter. If the groundhog, upon emerging from its hole, casts a shadow, it will return underground, thereby foreboding ‘At least six more weeks of winter’. However, the verdict if the groundhog does not see his shadow is ‘Spring just around the corner!’. Candlemas The Catholic Church replaced the festival of Imbolc with Candlemas Day, with the onset of Christianity. The day is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her purification after the birth of Christ, marked with candlelight processions. The candles are lit at midnight as a symbol of cleansing. Candlemas was also the time when the priests would bless the Churches’ beeswax candles.
A personal celebration
No matter how you celebrate Imbolc, the focus for this time of year is new beginnings (both literal and metaphorical), the blessing of hearth, home and crops and purification (by means of fire). Thus Imbolc is the day we honour the rebirth of the Sun. It is also a day of celebrating creativity, and now is the time to harness the power that is created in the turn of the season. This is a time of hope and anticipation, a perfect time to gather your thoughts, and prepare for new creative projects and activities. Take the opportunity that is presented by your resonance with the earth. Reawaken from your winter slumber and focus upon your hopes and dreams for the coming year. They may be physical, spiritual or emotional, but you can be assured that now is the time to lay the foundation stones of your dreams. This needn’t be a new dream, it may be something that has been a desire for many a year, and if so the clarification of your dream could not be sought at a better time. Be safe in the knowledge that in beginning this process you will be communing with, and at one with the burgeoning power, limitless potential and bounty of nature. Just as the earth is awakening, so may you harness this period of aspiration, fulfilment and creativity that lies ahead.
Amy Warburton is a designer, candlemaker, hedgewitch and mother of two boys who lives in Lancashire. Amy designs and makes beautiful herbal beeswax canles and giftsets. www.brighterblessings.co.uk.
Family Imbolc celebration
This involves the whole family, and is excellent for reaffirming your bonds with each other, banishing negativity, blessing your home and renewing positivity.
You will need:
Ivory beeswax foundation sheets (available from local craft shop)
Yellow or red beeswax foundation sheets
Cotton braided wick
A length of red ribbon for each person
An ear or corn or straw for each person
What to do: On Imbolc Eve, gather your family around the table. Explain to them the earth is reawakening and life is about to be born. Tell them it is a very powerful time of year, and the perfect time to think about all they want for the coming year, whether that be to learn an instrument or maybe to join a sports team. First take the white wax and lay the length of wick along the straight outer-edge facing you. Tuck in the wick along the entire length, leaving approximately 1.5-2 cm sticking out of one end. Once the wick is tucked in, simply roll up the wax into a candle, pressing the end edge gently into the body of the candle to seal. Repeat with the red and yellow wax. Now, tie the ribbon around the ear of corn or small bundle of straw, and hold it in your hands, along with your candle and ask for Brigit’s blessing upon your family and home. Now, take the corn bundles and place them upon the windowsill or doorstep for Brigit to bless as she passes. Then, back indoors, light each candle in turn, and place them in the windows. On the night of Imbolc itself, take your candles and focus on your desires and the things you wish to achieve. Placing your corn bundle at the base of each candle, light your candles and allow them to burn down. Your corn bundle is now a lucky, healing talisman. You can hang it in a doorway to bless your home, keep it with you for Brigit’s blessing on all you do, or place it under your pillow/in a safe place until you have achieved your desire. It cannot be expressed strongly enough that with all candle magic, young children must be supervised and warned of the power of fire!