“Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.”
–(Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael, Lindisfarne Press pg.583)
Imbolc (im-molc), also called An Fhéill Bhride (The Feast of Brighid) or Là Fhéill Bhride (Feast Day of Brighid), is perhaps the least written about of the Fire Festivals of Ireland. This is most likely because during this time of year there was little traveling done and there were no great festivals held to celebrate it. This holiday was celebrated within the local village, which may also mean that its rituals were even more diverse than any others throughout the island. Travel was hazardous during this time, not so much for the cold but for the darkness. Like the Winter Solstice celebration of the continental Indo-Europeans, it was an important celebration in that the hope of spring must be celebrated or depression will overtake the people.
This is considered the first of spring, although we in New England are well fooled by the great covering of snow and the cold weather. In Ireland the first stirrings of spring are said to be witnessed by the first lambing of the ewes (some believe that “Imbolc” is derived from “ewe’s milk” but this is considered unlikely by many etymologists and I will leave such concerns to those who enjoy arguing such things). The ground may be ready to plow for the first time soon after this day in parts of Ireland (but all we can hope for is a bit of a temporary thaw). Fisher-men would begin preparing their gear to go out, farmers would make sure their plows and other tools were in good working order; warriors, likewise, their weapons. This was a time of prepara-tion for one’s summer activities, what ever they may be. It was also a time to check one’s food stores, to see if they would last the rest of the season for there was still little fresh food for some time.
Feasts would be held, perhaps including fresh lamb; this might be the first fresh meat since early Winter, unless boredom had forced some out in the cold and darkness to hunt. Bonfires are not connected with this day as with the others, although the household hearthfires may have been dedicated to the Goddess Brighid and some rituals may have involved a blessing or relight-ing of the hearthfires. Ceremonies would mark the arrival of spring, focusing on the hope of the new season.
The feast was taken over by St. Brighid, although it has clear links to her Pagan predecessor. Young people would go from door to door at least in Christian times, usually masking as the Saint (often called “Biddies”), and there is reason to suspect that this had Pagan origins. This recalls the Samhain trick-or-treating and included a blessing on the households, but most likely only those that properly offered hospitality —perhaps the most important tenant of Celtic culture, Christian or Pagan.
Like the other Fire Festivals, this was a time for divination for the upcoming season. This includes weather divination, which comes to us in America as Ground Hog Day. There seems to be some tradition that if the weather is bad (hence no shadows are visible) on the feast day then the seasons weather will be good —skeptics note that this could just be a way to cheer oneself up over a spoiled party. The tradition of something coming from the ground on this day is found in the Scottish prayer sited at the beginning; we in New England are likely to see many ground hogs at this time of year, let alone snakes.
We today are not as isolated as our ancestors were during this time. Our roads are plowed, our way well lit. Most of us don’t have to worry about our food running short, except for a couple days during a blizzard. There are a few things that you can do to try to get in touch with the season and understand the meaning it might have had in Iron Age society.
Rather than going by the typical calendar date of February 2, try to do your ritual around the nearest thaw. If you have lived in your area for awhile you may even have an idea of when this will probably fall, but if you can be spontaneous you can wait until it happens. You may even want to wait until closer to our own Spring (remember, there is no evidence that any Iron Age culture celebrated all of the eight festivals of the NeoPagan calendar, they would have focused on the seasonal changes of their area so if you are doing an Irish or Scottish tradition doing Imbolc near the Spring Equinox is appropriate if that’s when you first see Spring).
Pick up seed catalogs and start ordering for spring —even if you have to plant your “garden” on your window sill.
This is still the “hungry months” so consider volunteering at a soup kitchen. Most of the Christians who do this seem to lose interest after “the holidays” of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Suicide hotlines are also in need of more volunteers during this time, even if the worse is at Christmas —help someone else see through the coming of the spring.
If you eat meat try going with out red meat for a few weeks, or eat only preserved meat products. Follow this up with a meal including lamb for your feast at your Imbolc ritual.
Even if Brighid is not the main focus of your worship, consider making a small altar to Her at your “hearth.” This may just be a space in your kitchen near your stove that includes a white candle and a Brighid’s Cross (and equal arm cross of straw). The cross should be destroyed and replaced each year and making and blessing the crosses might be part of your Imbolc ritual.
This is also an appropriate time to bless your house. If you belong to a ritual group that all live nearby, this could be part of the group’s seasonal activity.
If you are involved in an activity which is specifically Summer oriented, say a sport, get out the gear that you use for this activity. Clean it, repair it if necessary. Perhaps start making plans for this activity or for others that may involve traveling or getting a group together.
Consider spending extra time just with your family and “tribe,” whatever that may mean to you. Rather than spending a lot of time traveling and surrounding yourself with strangers, concentrate on those closest to you. Tell stories, this is still the dark half of the year and it is from Samhain to Beltaine that stories are traditionally told. Perhaps if your ritual group tends to only meet on group “business,” this would be a good time to just hang out, drink tea, and get to know each other better.
Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Press 1994 (reprint)
Kevin Danaher. “Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar.” The Celtic Consciousness Robert O’Driscoll, ed. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1981
T.G.E. Powell. The Celts New York: Thames and Hudson, 1980
Anne Ross. The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1990
— The Pagan Celts London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1986
— “Material Culture, Myth and Folk Memory” The Celtic Consciousness