Imbolc is the first festival in the Wheel of the Year that falls in the modern Gregorian calendar. So let’s delve in and find out all about the meanings and traditions of Imbolc
The First Day of Spring
Imbolc falls on 2nd Feb, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere. So it marks the centre point of the dark half of the year.
It was traditionally regarded as the first day of spring, when life is beginning to stir again. Imbolc means ‘in the belly’ the early stirrings of Spring in the womb of the Earth.
The name Imbolc is derived from the Druid word Oimealg, (“IM-mol’g), which means “ewes milk”, and is the festival of the lactating sheep. 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.
The Rebirth of Nature
Imbolc is the quickening of the year. The time when the earth is made pregnant with the promise of summer fruitfulness. Bulbs are beginning to shoot and the cycle of new life returns to the earth. Imbolc marks the rebirth of nature and fertility.
It is a Fire festival, with the emphasis on Light, celebrating it’s return as the days grow longer with the return of the Sun. Spring and the planting season are right around the corner. So it is the time of blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools.
It is the time when the last of the Yule evergreens are removed. In some places it is still traditional to keep the undecorated fir until Imbolc when it is taken and burned on the Imbolc fires.
The Meanings and Traditions of Imbolc around the World
All over the world in both ancient and modern times, different cultures have held their own versions of Imbolc:
The Feast of Nut
Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Feast of Nut, a sky goddess and mother of Ra, a Sun God. Nut regulates the passage of time by giving birth to the sun every morning and swallows him every night. Thus it was important to the ancients to please her at this time of the year, so that the days would continue to lengthen.
In ancient Rome (some believe even in pre-Rome), “Lupercalia” also known as the feast of Pan, was celebrated on February 15. Focusing on the history of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus in the cave known as the Lupercale.
The festival also concentrated on purifying the city and driving out evil as well as bolstering the health and fertility of the city-dwellers.
The priests of Pan would run through the streets dressed in goatskins whipping the people, especially the women, to make them fertile for the coming year!
Dia de la Candelaria
In Mexico, a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholicism, is celebrated in the form of Día de la Candelaria on February 2. The modern people of Mexico celebrate with parades, dances, and bullfights.
For Christians, February 2nd continues to be celebrated as Candelmas, the feast of purification of the Virgin.
By Jewish law, it took forty days after a birth for a woman to be cleansed following the birth of a son. Forty days after Christmas – the birth of Jesus – is February 2nd.
Candles were blessed, there was much feasting to be had, and the drab days of February suddenly seemed a little brighter.
St Brigid’s Day
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. Today, there are many churches around the world which bear her name.
In the ancient society of the Celts, the heralding of spring was no small thing. Having spent months in the frigid cold, often with little food stores left. Cows in particular were vital to the health and well-being of the tribe.
Milk was a sacred food to the Celts, the lifeblood of their spirituality, similar to the Christian communion.
There are stories of Brigid’s snake emerging from the womb of the Earth Mother at this time to test the weather. (The origin of the American GroundHog Day)
The Meanings and Traditions of Imbolc – The Goddess and God
The festival of Imbolc celebrates the increasing strength of the new God, who was born at Yule. Now seen as a young man, full of vigour, his pursuit of the Maiden starts.
The Goddess returns as Maiden
As the cold months recede, the Goddess casts aside her role as Crone and returns in the maiden aspect, dressed in white.
From Imbolc to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. In her guise as Brigid, Bridget, Bride, Brighid, Brigit or Brig – goddess of learning, poetry, prophesying, craftsmanship, agriculture, healing and midwifery.
Brigid is the virgin goddess who brings new life to the earth. She is known as Bride in Scotland, pronounced Breed, which is the origin of the word ‘bride’, and so Imbolc is also known as Bride’s Day.
She was Christianised as St. Bridget of Kildare, the patroness of sheep and fertility, and she was also known as the ‘Mother of Ireland’.
Brighid’s Green Mantle
One commonly found symbol of Brighid is her green mantle, or cloak.
The legend has it that Brighid was the daughter of a Pictish chieftain who went to Ireland to learn from St. Patrick.
In one story, the girl who later became St. Brighid, went to the King of Leinster. She petitioned him for land so she could build an abbey. The King, who still held to the old Pagan practices of Ireland, told her he’d be happy to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak.
Naturally, her cloak grew and grew until it covered as much property as Brighid needed, and she got her abbey.
A Bridge Between the Old and New
Thanks to her roles as both a Pagan goddess and a Christian saint, Brighid is often seen as being of both worlds; a bridge between the old ways and the new.
Holy Wells and Sacred Flames
As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing; and you can still find many of the wells still dedicated to her. Traditionally, on this day candle lit processions were led to St. Bridget’s holy shrines.
Brighid is the keeper of the sacred flame, the guardian of home and hearth. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
She walks the earth on the eve of her day, and before going to bed each member of the household should leave a piece of clothing outside for Brighid to bless.
Smother your fire as the last thing you do that night, and rake the ashes smooth. When you get up in the morning, look for a mark on the ashes, a sign that Brighid has passed that way in the night or morning.
The clothes are brought inside, and now have powers of healing and protection thanks to Brighid.
The Meaning of Imbolc
As this is a time of rebirth and new beginnings. It’s also an appropriate time for thinking about what you’d like to accomplish, for making attainment goals, choosing a new skill to learn.
Spring cleaning comes from the habit at Imbolc of getting rid of unwanted clutter and preparing for the new season, physically and mentally.
Make a Fresh Start
Now is the time to finish old habits and make a fresh start, and realise the world is full of new opportunities.
Imbolc is a traditional healing time and it is a good time to consider ways to improve your health.
It is a time of optimism and for making new plans for the sunny days ahead. Plant the seeds of your plans now and tend them so they mature into your hopes and dreams. Now is the time to renew your New Year resolutions.
In my next post, I will be sharing the ways that you can celebrate Imbolc. Including a meditation, crafts and recipes.
You can find a brief description of all eight festivals of the Wheel of The Year here
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