What was Imbolc about?
Simply put, Imbolc was a celebration of the end of winter and the impending light half of the year. The hardest part of the year was over; adverse weather, cold temperatures, food rationing, and of course, no warfare (an integral part of Celtic society) would soon be a thing of the past. Farmers were getting ready to go back to work, preparing animals for breeding, warriors were picking up their weapons again, and the political and social aspects of life that had been put on hold for winter were also beginning again.
The name Imbolc originates from ‘i mbolg’, which translates as ‘in the belly’. This refers to livestock breeding season, particularly the pregnancy of ewes, which was one of the focal points of the celebration. Because the festival was so associated with this, it’s timing often varied – it could be anywhere from mid-January to mid- February depending on the weather and the animals’ behaviour. It also appeared to have a more spiritual significance for the Celts too, as it’s no coincidence that more than a few megalithic monuments around Ireland are perfectly aligned with the rising sun around the dates of Imbolc and Samhain.
Imbolc was celebrated all across Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, with each region having slightly different variations in name and customs. Wales also had a remarkably similar version of the festival known as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau. After the onset of Christianity in Ireland, the festival was tied in with a celebration of Saint Bridget, and transformed from a pagan one into a Christian one. Christians used Brigid as the focal point of their celebrations to smooth the transition, as Imbolc had previously been associated with a goddess of a very similar name, Brighid. Essentially, Bridget and Brighid were the same person! As with all Celtic festivals, Imbolc involved a host of unique customs and rituals to welcome the spring, say farewell to the winter, ward against evil and promote health and wellbeing.
What happened during Imbolc?
Imbolc was similar to Samhain and Bealtaine in that fire played an integral part of the celebrations, although not on the same scale. While at Samhain bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and at Bealtaine they served to offer protection and growth, at Imbolc they were symbolic of the sun’s return. Rather than a huge central bonfire at the centre of the festivities, Imbolc was more about the home and each home’s hearth. Every home in the community would have their own fire burning right through the night, and during medieval times when homes consisted of actual wood and stone buildings rather than the wattle and daub huts of the Celts, all of the fires in the house were lit for the night. If for some reason that was not possible, it was sufficient to have candles lit in every room instead.
The Celts were always concerned about the weather (something that has lasted up until the present day with modern Irish people!), so Imbolc was an important time to read omens and attempt to predict the weather for the summer. An unusual but widely popular omen was if the weather was especially bad on the day of Imbolc, which meant a great summer was on the way. This is because one of the more malicious creatures in Irish folklore, the Cailleach, would spend the day of Imbolc collecting firewood for herself if winter was to last a while longer. To do this, she would obviously need a bright and dry day to collect her wood, so if Imbolc was wet and windy, that meant the Cailleach had gone to sleep and winter would soon be over.
Visiting wells was another important custom for Imbolc, particularly holy wells. Visitors would walk around the well in the same direction as the sun traversed the sky at that point on the land, praying for health and wealth for the year. Offerings were left at the well once this was done; usually coins or ‘clooties’ (pieces of cloth). Special foods were also part of the festivities, usually consisting of bannock – a flatbread cut into wedges – as well as dairy products and meat.
Saint Bridget and Imbolc
The early Celtic version of Imbolc was not all that different from the festival in early medieval times when Christianity was taking hold in Ireland. One of the goddesses the Celts worshipped at this festival was Bhrigid, the daughter of Dagda (the chief Celtic deity) and one of the Tuatha De Dannan, the first inhabitants of Ireland. She is associated with many things, most significantly poetry and fertility, but such activities as healing, smithing, arts, and crafts, tending to livestock and serpents also make the cut. She is credited with creating a whistle for people to call to one another through the night. Some legends claim that while one half of her face was beautiful, the other was horribly ugly. She is thought by many to be the Celtic equivalent of the Roman goddess Minerva and the Greek goddess Athena.
Saint Bridget, on the other hand, was not a mythical goddess but a real woman, born in Dundalk, County Louth, around the 5th century AD. During her lifetime she became a nun, founded numerous monasteries and performed her fair share of miracles, becoming one of the foremost advocates of Christianity in Ireland. After her death, she was made one of Ireland’s patron saints (and the only female patron saint), along with Patrick and Columba. So it was a natural progression for Imbolc, the pagan festival worshipping the goddess Bhrigid, to become the Christian festival in honour of Saint Bridget. February 2nd was chosen as the permanent day of celebration.
For the Celts, Bhrigid represented the all-important light half of the year, so her presence was much revered during the festival. On Imbolc Eve, it was claimed that she would visit the most virtuous homes and bless everyone who slept in them, so people would leave pieces of clothing, food, or other tokens outside the entrance for her to bless, or to entice her into the home, It was Bhrigid’s role as a fertility goddess that was most important here, but for the medieval people of Ireland, her healing powers and general protective sense were as important as well as her fertility. The majority of Imbolc traditions regarding Bhrigid or Bridget come from this time. While the tradition of leaving small tributes to Bridget on the doorstep continued for several centuries, several others sprang up too.
Ashes from the fire that was left to burn all night long would be smoothed out and left to see if a mark from Bridget appeared, to confirm that she had visited the house. Sometimes a makeshift bed would even be made up next to the fire, in case the saint wanted to rest a while. This tradition was particularly popular in the Isle of Man and Scotland, where there were several short rhymes to go along with the tradition, acting as a call to the Saint to come and visit – generally, they were some variation on the phrase ‘Bridget, come in to our home, your bed is ready’. In some areas across Ireland and Scotland, women played a very important part in the festivities. They would make a doll figure from rushes known as a ‘Brideog’, dress it in white and with flowers, and carry it in a procession while singing hymns and poems in honour of Bridget. At every home they passed, they would receive more pieces of cloth or small bits of food for the Brideog. Once the procession was finished, they would place the Brideog in a seat of honour and have a feast with all of the food, before placing it in a bed for the night while they began celebrations.
The most well-known tradition, however, and one that is still practiced today, is making a Saint Bridget’s cross and hanging it in the home. These crosses were a unique symbol of the transition from Paganism to Christianity. Before, bunches of rushes were tied together and hung at the entrance to homes to welcome Bhrigid. One of the stories of Bridget’s lifetime, however, recounts how she wove a cross from rushes and placed it above a dying man’s bed. He roused from his delirium to ask what she was doing, and on hearing what it meant, he asked to be baptised before his death. Since then, the cross has been a symbol for Bridget, and was also a familiar symbol for the Celts, making it the perfect transition symbol for Imbolc. The cross is distinctive, with a square in the middle and each point of the cross placed at a corner of the square. Somewhere between then and now, placing a cross in your kitchen came to mean that your house would be protected from fire,
Unlike Samhain, which transformed into the much loved night of Halloween, Imbolc is one Celtic festival that hasn’t quite survived through history. Although Christians still celebrate St. Bridget’s Day in Ireland and children still learn how to make crosses at the start of February, little else remains of the ancient Celtic spring festival. However, Saint Bridget’s cross, made from rushes and hung around the home just as the Celts would have done, is as good a reminder as any to the festival’s ancient and mythological origins.