Quick Facts and Stats
- Summary: Gaelic Festival celebrating the beginning of Spring
- 2020 Date: 1st February
- Celebrated by: Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Gaelic, Pagans
- Linked Holidays: Beltane, Samhain, Candlemass, Maghi, Lohri.
Background and Theological Significance
Imbolc’s history stretches back back for perhaps thousands of years. But at its core it has always been motivated by the same principles. It marks the passage of Winter and the new life that comes with Spring. The etymology of Imbolc is contested, most commonly it is said to derive from ‘I-bolg’, meaning “In the Belly” referring to pregnancy, particularly of ewes. However, all etymologies trace the name back in some way to these ideas of birth, new life, spring.
The focus of much of the celebration is on the figure of Brigid. A Goddess before she was a saint, Brigid represents the dawn, the coming Sun. She is portrayed as a maiden, and tied to ideas of fertility, fire, inspiration and creativity. Her name is traced back to the meaning “Bright One”.
Brigid is seen, at Imbolc, to take over the governance of the land from the Crone, Cailleach, The Queen of Winter. In some traditions The Crone is associated closely with Brigid as a different aspect of the Divine Feminine. The other being Brigatia, the warrior Mother. The Crone, the Queen of Winter, and Brigantia, the Mother, are perhaps not a different aspect of Bridget, more usually they are taken as two of the three aspects of the Divine Feminine: Maiden, Mother, Crone.
Brigid, unlike the other two, was Christianised in the person of St Brigid. Historically speaking, it is unclear whether she really existed, but the Christian St. Brigid is tied to the story of a daughter of a Pictish slave who founded many monastic communities after being baptised by St. Patrick.
Whatever the historicity, Brigid, and her festival marks the coming of Spring. Spring, and the new life that it brings are represented by Brigid and the things that are associated with her. Fires are lit to encourage and reflect the sun as it grows in strength, and the maiden highlights the change in season for the agrarian society that then prepares for lambing season.
But it wasn’t just farmers. During the winter months, everything would come to a standstill for these societies. Food would be rationed, no war would be made. The society had been in a state of hibernation, Imbolc marked the end to this. It was time for the people to rise to full life again, and assert themselves gathering resources, or taking them from their neighbours.
Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are built in a way that means they are lit up on the inside by the rising sun on Imbolc. This, considering the age of these ancient stone structures, tells us just how old the festival is. The fact that it was a day when the sun even lights up the graves, forming a passage of sunlight once a year from the dead to the heavens, highlights the long held significance of rebirth and new life.
In Ireland and other parts of the British and Irish Isles, the festival has long been associated with the Goddess of the Dawn Brigid. With the Christianisation of the British and Irish Isles, Brigid was reimagined as a Saint, hence why Imbolc is also referred to as St Brigid’s Day. It was also associated with Candlemass. The woman who carried the torch, so to speak, for the festival is now one of the three patron saints of Ireland, alongside Patrick and Columba. Saint Bridget, who lived in the fifth century was a nun and the founder of numerous monastic communities across Ireland.
It was celebrated widely as late as a hundred years ago, and in many rural communities it is still celebrated. Though observance has definitely shrunk in recent years. Not much remains of the original festivities, except for the hanging of St Brigid’s crosses, especially in rural households.
In recent years it has taken on a new significance due to the rise in neo-paganism and Wicca. Imbolc is one of the four points on the wheel of the year. There are many recommendations online for how local witch covens or wicca gatherings can gather to perform certain rites and magic during Imbolc, it has become especially associated with initiations into these new communities. How far this is a faithful recreation, and how far it is innovation on an important turning point in the year, is up for debate. But it highlights the persisting hold that this festival has over the imaginations of people around the world.
Two long held symbols of Imbolc are St Brigid’s Cross, which is hung in the home’s kitchen to protect the family from evil, and the Straw Dollies that are made and carried around the town by local girls. Alongside this, candles are often lit around the house to bless the space with warmth, reflecting the growing strength of the sun.
St. Brigid’s Cross is usually made by folding reeds or straw in a tight square with long tails that reach out in each direction and the practice of making one itself has become part of the festival. It may perhaps have an origin further back than Christianity in Ireland, but the story that comes with the Cross is that St Brigid weaved one such cross while watching over a Celtic Chieftain on his deathbed. When Brigid explained to the Chieftain what the Cross symbolised, the Chieftain asked to be baptised before he died. The crosses are either hung up or exchanged, or both, in order to spread the blessings that come with the festival.
Another common practice is the making of ‘Brideo’gas’ or Brigid dollies. Which represent the goddess/saint herself and are taken from house to house in a community by the local young girls. In some places, one of the young girls themselves dress as Brigid and perform this role of spreading the blessings themselves.
Studying Imbolc, highlights both the specificities and universality of celebrating the changing seasons, and the increasing warmth and life that Spring represents for a community. It also shows us in real time how the same festival can be reinterpreted over and over again in order to serve the same purpose for an ever evolving community.