Alternative Names for Imbolc: Feast of Brigantia, Gwyl Ffraed or Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Welsh)
Usually celebrated on the 1st or 2nd February
What is Imbolc?
Imbolc marks the very beginning of the first signs of spring; Snowdrops and Crocuses are appearing alongside Witch-Hazel They are very quickly followed by the likes of Daffodils, Iris and Pussy-Willow. The ewes are in milk and the first lambs are starting to be born. Mother Nature is waking up from her winter sleep. Imbolc, falling roughly half-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox is a deserving celebration. Life and colour are becoming visible again.
Imbolc in Historical Context
This is a festival with a variety of names depending on which culture/location you are viewing it from. The most commonly known Deity associated with it today is Brid (pronounced Bride – Irish). Brid is sometimes called Brighid who later became Christianised as Saint Bridget. Brythonic lands & culture also had her counterparts. In Wales she is know as Sant Ffraid or Ffraed. To the Brigantes tribe who inhabited what is now northern Britain (predominantly Yorkshire) she was known as Brigantia. Today we celebrate this festival on the 1st or 2nd February. Under the old Julian calendar the 1st February would now occur on or about the 12th.Early spring is traditionally a time to ensure protection and fertility for the crops and animals. Rites and traditions centered around this purpose and carried through into Christianity whose ceremony of Candlemass is centred on purification.
Imbolc has traditionally been celebrated on the 1st February. It is a festival based on seasonal changes associated with the onset of lambing and the blooming of the Blackthorn. These events can vary by as much as two weeks before or after the 1st. It is thought that the actual time of celebration may therefore have been a lot more fluid and have occured at the nearest full-moon. There is high anecdotal evidence of more lambs being born at full moon and this has been proven true in cows.The full moon in February is known as theStorm or Snow-Moon and statistically there is a higher chance of snow in this month than any other.
The Moon at Imbolc
For those living in a closer harmony with nature there are signs all around that change is in the air. The days are now getting noticeably longer with the Sun rising a good half an hour earlier and setting a good hour later than it did on the Solstice in December. There is also a tangible warmth to be felt when the Sun is shining on your back. Other signs start to appear, hazel catkins, snowdrops, bluebell shoots. Elder buds start bursting, primroses & lesser celandine appear alongside frogspawn. Bird song increases and gets more urgent as they welcome in the spring.
All around us things are beginning to germinate and stir. A sense of urgency is starting to buzz in the air. We are an intrinsic part of all of this and it is time to germinate and stir things within ourselves also. Imbolc is a festival of ‘hearth & home’ and it is time to put our own lives in order.
Imbolc Folk-Lore Customs and Traditions
- Fire & Purification were always an important part of this festival – the lighting of fires has always been a symbolic and sympathetic magic to encourage the increasing power of the Sun. After Imbolc the rate of change in the length of daylight increases dramatically.
- Weather Divination – Imbolc is the time for weather divination with the old tradition of watching to see if badgers or serpents came out of from their winter dens being a forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day. According to the Carmina Gadelica, an early proverb about the day goes : –
Thig an nathair as an toll
(The serpent will come from the hole)
la donn Bride
(on the brown day of Bride)
Ged robh tri traighean dh’an
(though there should be three feet of snow)
Air leachd an lair
(On the surface of the ground.)
- Cailleach Bheur – Imbolc was believed to be the day the Cailleach (the hag) — 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. People would be relieved if the weather on the day of Imbolc is foul, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.
- Clootie Wells – Holy wells were visited at Imbolc, visitors would pray for health while walking ‘sunwise’ around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (strips of cloth or rags as protection offerings). Water from the well was used to bless the home, family members, livestock and fields.
- Brid’s Cross – This is the most widely practiced custom associated with Imbolc. These are weavings of straw or rush that can be as simple as a few strands or amazingly elaborate. Most folks are familiar with the three or four-armed variety but there is a great number of different regional patterns. At the end of the evening each person should take their cross home, speak a request to Brid for blessing and protection of the home and family members. Old crosses from previous years should be moved to the rafters or attic. The new crosses should be hung in their place near the entryways to the dwelling. Crosses that were woven by the children should be hung on the wall over their beds, and if you happen to have a barn or out-building you should hang one there as well. Historically it was believed that they were effective in protecting the household and its inhabitants from fire and lightening.
For more information about celebrating the festivals see the Sacred Celebrations page.