As one of the ancient Celtic Fire Festivals, the celebration of Imbolc (pronounced “IM-bulk” or “EM-bowlk”), also called Oimealg, (“IM-mol’g) the Sabbat embraced on February 1st; has its origins locked in mystery as a festival that has simply been it may be among the most ancient. The festival of the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. Brid (also Brighid or Bridget), is the traditional Goddess associated with this Sabbat. The bride who is waiting for the return of her groom, the sun God who will court her until their wedding at Beltane. We know Imbolg as a celebration of the return of the sun or “the return of the light from the dark of winter”. It is also associated with the slow return of spring (in this case early spring), when new life is formed. Many animals who are nearing the end of their gestation begin nesting at this time. Preparing nests, dens, and the ike to create a safe warm place to have their babies when spring arrives in earnest. This associates Brighid with home/hearth.
The festival of the lactating sheep. Imbolc is derived from the Gaelic word “oimelc” which means “ewes milk”. Herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders. It is the time of the Blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. It marks the center point of the dark half of the year. It is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. Brighid’s snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather, (the origin of Ground Hog Day), and in many places, the first Crocus flowers began to spring forth from the frozen earth.
Evidence of how Imbolc was celebrated in Ireland derives from ancient Celtic manuscripts that mention the festival, and folklore collected during the 19th and early 20th centuries in rural Ireland and Scotland. This material is also compared with studies of similar customs in Scandinavia, and customs maintained up till the present day in the Celtic nations and the Irish and Scottish diasporas.
As a holiday, Imbolc represents a time of honoring and nurturing the spirit within. Examine your spiritual purpose, or even search for your magical name. Take stock of your supplies, and put your plans for the year into action. It is a time to express your own creativity through art and craft. From something as simple as crafting a wreath for the season, or something elaborate as a painting or sculpture. The art is an expression of your inner spirit that is being crafted in the illumination of the Divine Universe, or in this case Brighid.
Celebrations begin at dusk with a family dinner. Because of Brighid’s connection with nourishment through the symbol of milk, we like to prepare a cream-based entree. Such as Chowder, which is always a crowd pleaser. With scalloped potatoes, late fall vegetables, and honey milk biscuits. With a trend of being introverted and full of reflection on the home, many take this time to cleanse and purify, or by lighting a specially selected candle, or even a nice log fire to cut the cold chill of this wintry month. Weaving Brigid’s Cross to call upon the favor of the Celtic Goddess Brigid. Making the cross on this day was/is an act of asking Brigid to honor the family with fertility.
This can be for children in the family, for food that will grow in the garden, or in the field for livestock that will provide for the family. Express your own inner spiritual light through some creative endeavor, something that can be used during your ritual celebration in the evening. A festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Rituals often involve hearth fires, special foods, divination or simply watching for omens (whether performed in all seriousness or as children’s games), plenty of candles, and perhaps an outdoor bonfire if the weather permits.
The Maiden is honored, as the Bride, on this Sabbat. Straw Brideo’gas (corn dollies) are created from oat or wheat straw and placed in baskets with white flower bedding. Young girls then carry the Brideo’gas door to door, and gifts are bestowed upon the image from each household. Afterward at the traditional feast, the older women make special acorn wands for the dollies to hold, and in the morning the ashes in the hearth are examined to see if the magic wands left marks as a good omen. Brighid’s Crosses are fashioned from wheat stalks and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year. Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and a besom is placed by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new. Candles are lit and placed in each room of the house to honor the re-birth of the Sun.
Another traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plow. In some areas, this is the first day of plowing in preparation for the first planting of crops. A decorated plow is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden plowed up. In other areas, the plow is decorated and then Whiskey, the “water of life” is poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plow and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time.
There are many traditions that may have followed us from these ancient festivities, as in many other cultures the creation of a corn dolly this doll, was carried in procession by maidens also dressed in white. Gifts of food were presented to the Goddess with a special feast given by and for the maidens. Young men were invited to this feast for the purpose of ritual mating to insure that new souls would be brought in to replace those lost during the cold times.
Imbolc is still a special time for Pagans. As people who are deeply aware of what is going on in the natural world, we recognize that there is strength in cold as well as heat, death as well as life. The Horned God reigns over the Autumn and Winter and although the light and warmth of the world may be weak he is still in his power. Many feel that human actions are best when they reflect the actions of nature, so as the world slowly springs back into action it is time for the small tasks that are neglected through the busy year. Rituals and activities might include the making of candles, planting spring flowers, reading poetry, and telling stories.