Imbolc (Imbolg) the festival marking the beginning of spring has been celebrated since ancient times and the Imbolc folklore that has developed over the years is fascinating. It is a Cross Quarter Day, midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It can fall between the 2nd & 7th of February when calculated as the mid point between the astronomical Winter Solstice and the astronomical Spring Equinox.
Cross quarter days were traditionally when leasehold payments and rents for land and premises were paid, and on these days people had a little more freedom to celebrate and mark the changing seasons.
In some places in Ireland and Scotland, all work ceased on the feast and devotions at holy wells took place instead. In others, the ban on work was confined to activities such as ploughing, smithwork, and anything that involved turning wheels (spinning, carting, milling, and sewing machines), activities associated with the saint. The significance of quarter days is now limited, although leasehold payments and rents for commercial land and premises in England and Scotland are often still due on the old quarter days.
Historically, the feast day was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Celtic seasonal fire festivals along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain and corresponds to the Welsh Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Candlemas)
Imbolc marked the beginning of spring
Traditionally, the Celtic feast associated with 1 February marked the beginning of spring. Often this coincided with the lambing season and the first ploughing in many areas. The success of all these events was of great importance to economies that relied on herding and farming. The basic theme was the waking of the land from its wintry, death-like sleep into new life.
Once the land was wakened with blessing and ploughing, new crops could be planted. Also, many animals were also giving birth or preparing to do so. The beginning of lambing season brought fresh milk at the time of year when cow’s milk was often unavailable. Fresh meat and milk were a welcome change after months of salted or smoked meat. Also, the winter stores of root vegetables, grain, and preserved meat might be getting low.
Imbolc is mentioned in early Irish literature in the story of Tochmarc Emire – The story of The wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn from Lebar na Núachongbála (The Book of Leinster) c.1160, showing it has been a significant festival celebrated since ancient times. It is believed that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid and that it was later Christianised as a festival of Saint Brigid.
Imbolc folklore and customs ensuring abundance
Many of the customs at spring and summer were aimed at ensuring that crops grew and herds flourished. Asking for blessings on the animals was also essential for several reasons. Milk production was relied on for a steady supply of milk products until the harvest began six months later. In Ireland, milk products – cheese, butter – were called “white meat.” Also, spring rituals were designed to promote human fertility and health necessary for families and households to grow and maintain their position on the land and in the tribe.
At Imbolc, Brigid’s crosses were made as well as a doll-like figure of Brigid. Brigid was considered a patron of the dairy according to folk tradition, and many rituals were performed to promote fertility and the milk yield. One of these involved fashioning a straw doll or Brídeóg, decorated with rags, shells and flowers. Young boys and girls would carry the Brídeóg in a procession from house to house where they would perform a song to Brigid. Brigid was also invoked to protect homes and livestock. Special feasts were eaten, holy wells were visited and it was also a time for divination.
Celebrating Imbolc as a religious holiday
Although many of its customs died out in the 21st century, it is still observed and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. Since the later 20th century, Druids, Celtic pagans and Wiccans have observed Imbolc as a religious holiday.
In Celtic 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 Celtic seasonal festivals: Samhain (1 November), Imbolc (1 February), Beltane (1 May) and Lughnasadh (1 August).
From the 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Imbolc/St Brigid’s Day were recorded by folklorists and other writers. They tell us how it was celebrated then, and shed light on how it may have been celebrated in the past.
Imbolc has traditionally been celebrated on 1st/2nd February. However, because the day was deemed to begin and end at sunset, the celebrations would start on what is now 31 January. It has also been argued that the timing of the festival was originally more fluid and based on seasonal and astrological changes. It has been associated with the onset of the lambing season which could vary by as much as two weeks before or after 1st February and the blooming of blackthorn.
A festival of the hearth and home
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, 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. A spring cleaning was also customary.
Holy wells were visited at Imbolc, Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking ‘sunwise’ around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties. Water from the well was used to bless the home, family members, livestock and fields.
Imbolc as a time of purification
Simple folk-rites of purification seem to have played a substantial role for the celebrants of Imbolg according to a brief poem now known as the Quatrains of the Feasts that was recorded in an Old Irish manuscript, here translated by Kuno Meyer and excerpted from his anthology Hibernica Minora:
Tasting each food according to order,
this is what is proper at Imbolg;
washing the hands,
the feet, the head;
This is what I declare…
Donald Alexander Mackenzie also recorded that offerings were made “to earth and sea”. The offering could be milk poured into the ground or porridge poured into the water, as a libation. In Scotland, dairymaids made libations of milk to Brighid, It was a practice that may have originated with ancient mother goddess worship and continued as recently as 1770, with an account of dairymaids on the Island of Trodda leaving daily offerings for milk on hollow stone.
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