Imbolc, the Beginning of Spring
Half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox falls the cross-quarter day Imbolc, or Imbolg. It is usually celebrated between the 1st and 4th of February. The name comes from the Old Irish word i mbolg, which translates “in the belly.” This refers to the fact that many of the ewes are pregnant with spring lambs during this time of year. Another name, oimelc, means “ewe’s milk.” At this time of year, people are anxious for an end to the bitter winter weather, and celebrate the lengthening of days as winter gives way to spring.
Imbolc has been observed since ancient times. At the Mound of the Hostages located in Ireland on the Hill of Tara, there are Neolithic tombs dating back 5,000 years which were built so that their openings are aligned with the rising sun on Imbolc as well as on the autumn festival of Samhain.
Celtic Goddess Brigid and Christian Saint Brigid
Imbolc marks the feast of the beloved Celtic goddess Brigid, also known as Brighid, Brigit and Bride. Brigid was known as the Light-Bringer, who would restore life and abundance to the bleak winter landscape. She was believed to be the daughter of the Great God known as the Dagda, and she was the goddess of many domestic and creative activities. Poetry, which included divination and prophecy, was under Brigid’s patronage, as were smithcraft, healing, weaving, dyeing and brewing. She had three totem animals, a wild boar called Torc Triath and a magical pair of oxen named Feimhean and Fea.
In the 5th century when Christianity came to Ireland, the pagan goddess Brigid was conflated with St. Brigid, known as Mary of the Gael. St. Brigid was born in Faughart near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. According to legend, she was the daughter of a druid, and she born as her mother was stepping over a threshold at sunrise, symbolizing being “neither within nor without,” when movement between the worlds is possible. Like Brigid the goddess, Brigid the saint was associated with cows, which were considered the most important domesticated animal. She founded a monastery at Kildare, and is credited with many miracles. An inextinguishable flame is said to have burned at her convent for a thousand years, until the 16th century. People make pilgrimages for healing to wells and springs dedicated to St. Brigid.
Customs of Imbolc
Imbolc is a time of purification and renewal. Cleaning the house is symbolic of sweeping away the old to make ready for the new. It is a time to forgive and start over. Imbolc traditions include burning the remaining greenery left from Yule, burning candles and eating dairy products, cakes and dried fruits. Making Brigid’s Wheels or Crosses out of rushes is a traditional Imbolc activity. They are placed in the home to protect it from harm. Click here for a video with instructions on how to make a St. Brigid’s Cross.
Candlemas, another Early February Celebration
The holiday of Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd. In the Christian tradition, this day commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth, as well as the purification of his mother Mary. The day is marked with having candles blessed by the priest, the lighting of candles and, in some countries, eating crepes or pancakes.