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Imbolc: the ancient Celtic festival of February

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Originally written on February 1, 2020 – updated 2023

Imbolc is a holiday with a variety of names, depending on which culture and location you’re looking at.
For istance, in the Irish Gaelic, it’s called Oimelc, which translates literally to “ewe’s milk”.
Not by chance, the earliest mentions of Imbolc in Irish literature date back to the 10th century, with poetry from that time who related the holiday to ewe’s milk, as implication of purification. It’s been speculated that this stems from the breeding cycle of sheep and the beginning of lactation, and the holiday was traditionally aligned with the first day of spring and the idea of rebirth.
And, moreover, Spring and the planting season are right around the corner.
This Sabbat, which falls from February 1 through sundown February 2, is often a celebration of the goddess Brighid, who appears as St. Brigid in the Christian faith.
Either way, based on a Celtic tradition, Imbolc was meant to mark the halfway point between winter solstice and the spring equinox.

For the ancient Celts, Imbolc began from the sunset of the previous day, February 1 and, for this reason, the festivities started from the night before with bonfires, feasts, singing and dancing.
Imbolc’s patron goddess is Brigit (Brigid, Bridgit, Brig, Bridget, Brighid, and many more…depending on the area you are and if you are Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales), and was evoked in fertility rites, worshipped especially by the Filid, a class of poets and historians among the Celts of ancient Ireland and Britain.
Brigid is one of the most important Irish goddesses, so much that, in the Saint Brigid of Kildare, she remains the protector of Ireland even today.
In Celtic tradition, she is described as the daughter of Dagda, a god with strong appetites, in possession of a spear with the size of a tree and a cauldron that is never emptied. Myths about Brigid’s birth say she was born with a flame in her head and drank the milk of a mystical cow from the spirit world. Brigid is credited with the very first keening, a traditional wailing for the dead practiced at funerals by Irish and Scottish women.
Traditionally, she is a young woman, often represented as a threefold shape, but not in the sense of a maiden-mother-crone, but rather because patroness of the Three Arts: she was in fact considered the patroness of filidhecht, or poetry, which, apart from being an art form, also had magical implications, as well as the patroness of metalworking and healing.
The combination of these three different qualities should not surprise us, as in all ancient traditions, metalworking was an art that had much in common with magic and secrets known only to initiated. Who knew how to blend metals, often also knew how to close wounds and, according to popular beliefs, had a superior knowledge.
In pre-Christian times, Imbolc observance began the night before, with celebrants who prepared themselves for a visit from Brigid into their homes by crafting an effigy of the goddess from bundles of oats and rushes. The effigy was placed in a dress and put in a basket overnight.
The day of Imbolc was celebrated by burning lamps and lighting bonfires in tribute to the goddes.

Over the centuries, Brigid was adopted into Christianity as St. Brigid.
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.
St. Brighid of Kildare is officially one of Ireland’s patron saints, and she is associated with an early Christian nun and abbess, although historians are divided on whether or not she was a real person.
Apparently accounts of her life were written by monks dating back to the 8th century. Whether or not she existed, these stories contain aspects in common with the details of the pagan goddess and illustrate the transition from pagan to Christian worship.
Like the goddess, St. Brigid is associated with milk and fire. Born in Ireland around 453 A.D., she was the daughter of a slave and a chieftain who was celebrated at an early age for her agricultural knowledge.
With no interest in marrying, Brigid’s goal was to create a monastery in Kildare, supposedly the former site of a shrine to the Celtic goddess of the same name. Brigid lived her entire life there. She was renowned for her charity to the poor and stories abound about her healing powers. St. Brigid was a friend of St. Patrick, whose preaching set her on a course at an early age, and she became Ireland’s first nun. St. Brigid is said to have died in 524 A.D., and the remains of her skull and hand are claimed to be somewhere in Portugal.
In the 12th century, according to a legend, the nuns in Kildare attended to a fire built in St. Brigid’s honor. The fire had burned for 500 years and produced no ash, and only women were allowed in proximity of the flames.
The celebration of St. Brigid’s Day on February 1 was put in place by the church to replace Imbolc. On her feast day, an effigy of St. Brigid of Kildare is traditionally washed in the ocean and surrounded by candles to dry, and stalks of wheat are transformed into cross talismans known as Brigid crosses.
Today, there are many churches around the world which bear her name.
When the Celts came down to Italy, the name of the goddess became Brigantia and gave the name to the Brianza area in Lombardy region.

Although Imbolc isn’t even mentioned in non-Gaelic Celtic traditions, it’s still a time rich in folklore and history.
The early Celts celebrated a purification festival by honoring Brighid, or Brid, whose name meant “bright one.” In some parts of the Scottish Highlands, Brighid was viewed in her aspect as crone as Cailleach Bheur, a woman with mystical powers who was older than the land itself. Brighid was also a warlike figure, Brigantia, in the Brigantes tribe near Yorkshire, England.
Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens may be a forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day. A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:

Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a huge bird carrying sticks in her beak.

Other celebrations that fall around this time include the Roman Lupercalia, Egypt’s Feast of Nut, and Candelmas, the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, but these are other stories…

Images from web – Google Research

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