|Also called||Lá Fhéile Bríde (Irish Gaelic)
Là Fhèill Brìghde (Scottish Gaelic)
Laa'l Breeshey (Manx Gaelic)
|Observed by||Historically: Gaels
Today: Irish people, Scottish people, Manx people, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans
Pagan (Celtic polytheism, Celtic Neopaganism, Wicca)
|Significance||beginning of spring|
|Celebrations||feasting, making Brighid's crosses and Brídeógs, visiting holy wells, divination|
(or 1 August for Neopagans in the S. Hemisphere)
|Related to||Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau, Candlemas, Groundhog Day|
Imbolc or Imbolg (pronounced i-MOLK or i-MOLG ), also called (Saint) Brighid's Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Bríde, Scottish Gaelic: Là Fhèill Brìghde, Manx: Laa'l Breeshey), is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 1 February, or about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Historically, it was widely observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain—and corresponds to the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau. Christians observe it as the feast day of Saint Brighid, especially in Ireland.
Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. It is believed that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brighid and that it was Christianized as a festival of Saint Brighid, who herself is thought to be a Christianization of the goddess. At Imbolc, Brighid's crosses were made and a doll-like figure of Brighid, called a Brídeóg, would be paraded from house-to-house. Brighid was said to visit one's home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brighid and leave her food and drink, while items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless. Brighid was also invoked to protect homes and livestock. Feasts were had, holy wells were visited and it was also a time for divination.
Although many of its customs died out in the 20th century, it is still observed and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Imbolc, or something based on it, as a religious holiday.
Irish imbolc derives from the Old Irish i mbolg "in the belly". This refers to the pregnancy of ewes. A medieval glossary etymologizes the term as oimelc "ewe's milk". Some Neopagans use Oimelc as a name for the festival.
Since Imbolc is immediately followed (on 2 February) by Candlemas (Irish Lá Fhéile Muire na gCoinneal "feast day of Mary of the Candles", Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau), Irish imbolc is sometimes rendered as "Candlemas" in English translation; e.g. iar n-imbulc, ba garb a ngeilt translated as "after Candlemas, rough was their herding".
The date of Imbolc is thought to have been significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period. This is based on the alignment of some Megalithic monuments. For example, at the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain.
Historic Imbolc customs
In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc was the feis or festival marking the beginning of spring, during which great feasts were held. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature, from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Studies by folklorists from the 18th to 20th centuries tell us how Imbolc was celebrated then, and shed light on how it may have been celebrated in the past.
Imbolc has been traditionally associated with the onset of lactation of ewes and the lambing season. This could vary by as much as two weeks before or after the start of February. However, the timing of agrarian festivals can vary widely, given regional variations in climate. This has led to some debate about both the timing and origins of the festival. The Blackthorn is said to bloom at Imbolc. The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods (butter, milk, and bannocks, for example), divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permitted. Fire and purification were an important part of the festival. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
Holy wells were also visited at Imbolc, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Beltane and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking 'sunwise' around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (see clootie well). Water from the wells may have been used to bless things.
Imbolc is strongly associated with Saint Brighid (Old Irish: Brigit, modern Irish: Bríd, modern Scottish Gaelic: Brìghde or Brìd, anglicized Bridget). Saint Brighid is thought to have been based on Brighid, a Gaelic goddess. The festival, which celebrates the onset of spring, is thought to be linked with Brighid in her role as a fertility goddess.
On Imbolc Eve, Brighid was said to visit virtuous households and bless the inhabitants as they slept. As Brighid represented the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence was very important at this time of year. In the 19th century, families would have a supper on Imbolc Eve to mark the end of winter. Often, some of the food and drink would be set aside for Brighid. Before going to bed, items of clothing or strips of cloth would be left outside for Brighid to bless. Ashes from the fire would be raked smooth and, in the morning, they would look for some kind of mark on the ashes as a sign that Brighid had visited. The clothes or strips of cloth would be brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection. In Mann during the 18th century, the custom was to gather a bundle of rushes, stand at the door, and invite Brighid into the house by saying "Brede, Brede, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Brede and let Brede come in". The rushes were then strewn on the floor as a carpet or bed for Brighid. In the 19th century, some old Manx women would make a bed for Brighid in the barn with food, ale, and a candle on a table. In the Hebrides in the late 18th century, a bed of hay would be made for Brighid and someone would then go outside and call out three times: "a Bhríd, a Bhríd, thig a sligh as gabh do leabaidh" ("Bríd Bríd, come in; thy bed is ready"). In the early 19th century, the people of the Hebrides held feasts, at which women would dance while holding a large cloth and calling "Bridean, Bridean, thig an nall 's dean do leabaidh" ("Bríd Bríd, come over and make your bed"). However, by this time the bed itself was rarely made.
In Ireland and Scotland, girls and young women would make a Brídeóg (also called a 'Breedhoge' or 'Biddy'), a doll-like figure of Brighid made from rushes or reeds. It would be clad in bits of cloth, shells and/or flowers. In the Hebrides of Scotland, a bright shell or crystal called the reul-iuil Bríde (guiding star of Brighid) was set on its chest. The girls would carry it in procession while singing a hymn to Brighid. All wore white with their hair unbound as a symbol of purity and youth. They visited every house in the area, where they received either food or more decoration for the Brídeóg. Afterwards, they feasted in a house with the Brídeóg set in a place of honor, and put it to bed with lullabies. When the meal was done, the local young men humbly asked for admission, made obeisance to the Brídeóg, and joined the girls in dancing and merrymaking until dawn. In the late 17th century, Catholic families in the Hebrides would make a bed for the Brídeóg out of a basket. In parts of Ireland, the Brídeóg was carried from house-to-house by children who asked for pennies for "poor Biddy". In many parts, only unwed girls could carry the Brídeóg, but in some places both boys and girls carried it. Up until the mid-20th century, children still went from house to house asking for money for the poor. In County Kerry, men in white robes went from house to house singing.
Brighid's crosses (pictured on the right) were made at Imbolc. A Brighid's cross consists of rushes woven into a shape similar to a swastika, with a square in the middle and four arms protruding from each corner. They were often hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brighid and protect the buildings from fire and lightning. The crosses were generally left there until the next Imbolc. In western Connacht, people would make a Crios Bríde (Bríd's girdle); a great ring of rushes with a cross woven in the middle. Young boys would carry it around the village, inviting people to step through it and so be blessed.
Today, some people still make Brighid's crosses and Brídeógs or visit holy wells dedicated to St Brighid on 1 February.
Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens may be a forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day. A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—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. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.
Imbolc and Imbolc-based festivals are held by some Neopagans. As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Imbolc celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible. Other Neopagans base their celebrations on many sources, with historic accounts of Imbolc being only one of them.
Neopagans usually celebrate Imbolc on 1–2 February in the Northern Hemisphere and 1–2 August in the Southern Hemisphere. Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox (or the full moon nearest this point). In the Northern Hemisphere, this midpoint is when the ecliptic longitude of the Sun reaches 315 degrees (0 degrees = March equinox). In 2013, this occurred on 3 February. Other Neopagans celebrate Imbolc when the primroses, dandelions, and other spring flowers emerge.
Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionists emphasize historical accuracy. They base their Imbolc celebrations on traditional lore and historic accounts of the festival. They usually celebrate the festival when the first stirrings of spring are felt, or on the full moon nearest this. Many use traditional songs and rites from sources such as The Silver Bough and The Carmina Gadelica. It is a time of honoring the Goddess Brighid, and many of her dedicants choose this time of year for rituals to her.
Wiccans celebrate a variation of Imbolc as one of the eight holidays (or "Sabbats") of the Wheel of the Year. Imbolc is defined as a cross-quarter day, midway between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara). In Wicca, Imbolc is commonly associated with the goddess Brighid and as such it is sometimes seen as a "women's holiday" with specific rites only for female members of a coven. Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolc is the traditional time for initiations.
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