As inhabitants of this Earth, we are at the mercy of the seasons. From harvesting foods to tending to livestock, the weather and hours of sunlight determine how and when we conduct ourselves to survive. And while modern practices such as greenhouses, factory farming and hydroponics create conditions less dependent on temperatures, the need to agriculturally align ourselves with the divisions of our calendar year remains necessary.
Think back to a time when there were no indoor options for gardening and animal husbandry. The cycles of the seasons were observed, obeyed and - most importantly - celebrated. The four major solar events of Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn (also known as quarter days) are anticipated by each halfway point between them – the cross-quarter days of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. (A little more on those later.) The cross-quarter day of Imbolc is a time to welcome longer days, prepare for the pending warmth and embrace the new life about to spring from the soil.
Imbolc (pronounced IM-bolluk with a guttural ‘k’ sound) is a Gaelic seasonal festival celebrated between January 31 and February 2 – halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. As the midpoint between the chill and the thaw, we anticipate the changes that Spring has in store for us. In ancient times, this transition anticipated the departure of frigid, lean days and the restless desire to get our land and livestock ready for a rebirth.The etymology of the word Imbolc is up for debate with several possibilities floating about since it first appeared in Irish text dating back to the 10th century. The most common interpretation is i mbolc which means “fire in the belly”, most likely referring to lambing season which traditionally occurs during this time of year. (Another suggested ovine origin is oimelc, a name for ewe milk.) Some additional possibilities include imb-fholc, the word to wash or cleanse oneself (Spring cleaning, anyone?) and embibolgon, a Proto-Celtic term for budding.
Imbolc is considered the festival of the Celtic goddess Brigid as well as the feast day of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland.
Who Was Brigid?
In pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland, an extraordinary race called the Tuatha Dé Danann is depicted in Irish mythology.
Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, a powerful king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Folklore renders Brigid as a goddess of poetry, fertility, wisdom and fire.
[“Riders of the Sidhe” John Duncan 1911]
Then there’s the 5th century girl from County Louth. Born into slavery, St. Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. During her years in Kildare, St. Brigid is credited with many miracles. A 17th century biographical anthology of Irish saints speaks of a friendship between Brigid and St. Patrick.
So, are they one in the same?
As pagan author Patti Wigington so eloquently puts it, “When Ireland converted to Christianity, it was hard to convince people to get rid of their old gods, so the church allowed them to worship the goddess Brighid as a saint – thus the creation of St. Brigid's Day.” The Christianization of ancient rituals, celebrations and even gods is often debated...but that’s a topic for another day.
In a more inclusive explanation, the RTE documentary on Faughart, Co. Louth sees author Dolores Whelan telling us, “Most of what we know about Brigit as the Christian saint who was supposedly born in Faughart and set up her monastery in Kildare…actually comes from her pre-Christian incarnation as the goddess Brigid and in order to understand Celtic spirituality, you must understand Brigid as both goddess and saint.”
The historical and spiritual significance of Brigid of Kildare to the people of Ireland is undeniable, especially at the Solas Bhríde Centre in Kildare Town. It is said that her fire kept a flame for nearly 10 centuries before finally being extinguished during the reign of Henry VIII and the Suppression of the Monasteries. In 1993, the Brigidine Sisters of Kildare relit the fire of Brigid and the Perpetual Flame continues to burn at Solas Bhríde to this day.
Brigid, whether fire goddess, patron saint or both, compels us to ritualize life returning to Earth through flame, light and purification during the festival of Imbolc.
How Is Imbolc Celebrated?
From crosses woven of rushes to elaborate Imbolc altars, the celebrations focus on protection and purification. Being that Brigid is associated with fire, the presence of flame is abundant, whether it be candles, torches, lamps or the hearth.
Brigid’s cross is a highly recognizable symbol of Ireland with its square center and four tied arms. Traditionally made of rushes (a straw-like plant), Brigid’s cross can be made of any flexible, hardy stems – even readily available pipe cleaners as illustrated on YouTube by Sean O’Laoghaire. Considered the keeper of the perpetual flame, Brigid is honored through this ritual. A finished cross is often hung over doorways to protect homes from evil and, you guessed it….fire. It is believed that St. Brigid fashioned a cross with the rushes from a dying man’s floor bringing him comfort and religious conversion before his death.
Another custom finds the creation of a doll-like figure called a Brídeóg made in the image of Brigid. A group of females – young and old – would walk from home-to-home with their cherished, symbolic guest allowing the community to accept her protection and offer her food and clothing.
[PHOTO CREDIT: instagram @hedydd]
A celebration of the land and its surroundings is also a suggested observance. During his outdoor Imbolc festival, Michael Conneely of the Druid Forest School believes in honoring spirits in the earth, the trees and in the surrounding rocks and waters.
And don’t forget the candles. Lots and lots of candles.
The most common practice of an Imbolc ceremony is erecting an altar by which to meditate, prepare for the purifying change in season and receive the protection of Brigid. The colors of the altar are carefully chosen to symbolize the festival and often include white for snow, yellow for sun, red for fire and green for earth. Flowers or buds are featured to signify new life on its way – from vegetation to lambs to daylight.
The similarities between Imbolc and other seasonal occurrences are evident. A great Gaelic legend speaks of the divine old Cailleach who would gather her firewood for the remaining days of winter. As a weather deity, Cailleach would make February 1 sunny enough to get together plenty of firewood under bright skies. If the day was inclement, it was believed she was asleep and not in need of more wood; hence, winter was coming to an end. Punxsutawney Cailleach, anyone?
Another connected celebration of Imbolc is Candlemas. Celebrated on February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas, this feast of the presentation of the infant Jesus Christ to the Temple also commemorates the purification his mother Mary. According to Mosaic Law, a woman is “unclean” after giving birth to a son and must go through 40 days of purification.
The Gaelic Seasonal Festivals
The change of seasons held much power in ancient, agricultural societies. It is human nature to honor or venerate things with great power and the patterns in weather were no exception.
There are 8 Gaelic festivals commemorated throughout the year.
The Wheel of the Year is a modern paganism celebration of seasonal festivals including both solstices, both equinoxes and the midpoints between them all.
The Quarter Days
March 19 – 22
June 19 – 23
September 21 – 24
December 20 – 23
The Cross-Quarter Days
Halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox
Marks the beginning of the spring season
Halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice
Marks the beginning of the pastoral summer season
Halfway between summer solstice and autumn equinox
Marks the beginning of the harvest season
Oct. 31 – Nov. 1
Halfway between autumn equinox and winter solstice
Marks the end of the harvest season
Roll With the Changes
As each Gaelic festival approaches, we are reminded that our love affair with this planet has many moods. We reflect on how the cycles of seasons meticulously dictated the patterns of ancient modern life. Their dependence on sunlight, harvesting and a pastoral lifestyle seems foreign in our world of fast food, virtual assistants and Amazon Prime.
Take some time to appreciate a simpler and more vulnerable existence. Light a candle, invite the warmth and protection it brings and get ready for the new life around the corner.
Blessed Imbolc, everyone.