Imbolc – Gaelic festival marking start of Spring

1st February St Brigid’s Day
Imbolc is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. It was generally celebrated on February 1st. The festival is thought to date back to Neolithic (Stone Age) times.

Evidence of this can be found on the Hill of Tara where the Mound of the Hostages was built in 3000 BC so that the sun lit up its chambers on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain.

Imbolc, ancient Celtic festival. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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Imbolc was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Wales a similar festival called Gwyl Fair Y Canhwyllau was celebrated.

The name Imbolc comes from the old Irish ‘I mbolg’ which meant ‘in the belly’ referring to the pregnancy of ewes which generally occurs during this time of year. It was strongly associated with Brighid, the goddess of fertility.

With the coming of Christianity the goddess Brighid was adopted as St Brighid. In many parts of Ireland, St Brighid’s day is still celebrated on 1st February and many of the old traditions are still kept alive.

Imbolc was a festival closely related to the home and hearth. Traditionally, at Imbolc, Brighid’s crosses were made out of Rushes or Reeds and hung on doors or in the rafters of houses. A large straw doll of Brighid would be made and paraded through the town going from door to door. Brighid was believed to visit the people’s homes on Imbolc and so food, drink and a bed would be laid out especially for her as an offering of hospitality in exchange for her blessing.

People would leave items of clothing or cloth outside their doors during the night in order for Brighid to bless them. There would also be a great feast and people would visit the holy wells to make offerings in return for blessings of good health. Fires were lit as a symbol of the return of longer days and warmth.

Imbolc was also a time of weather divination. Gaelic legend has it that on this day the Cailleach, the ruler of the dark side of the year, would gather her firewood for the remainder of winter. If she decided to make it a long winter she would make the day warm and sunny so that she could gather as much wood as possible. So, people would rejoice if Imbolc was accompanied by bad weather as it suggested an early spring.

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Another tradition was to wait for serpents or badgers to emerge from their dens, indicating fine weather to come. A similar tradition is still alive in North America where Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd. It is believed that if the Groundhog emerges from its hole and sees a shadow there will be six more weeks of winter.

Today Imbolc is generally celebrated in Ireland as St Brighid’s day on February 1st. However, various neo-pagan groups have brought it back, observing many ancient traditions including feasts and bonfires to celebrate the seasonal changes.

Video – the story of Imbolc

Take a look at this video that tells the story of Imbolc. Filmed in the Imbolc section of Brigit’s Garden in Co Clare and featuring haunting Celtic music by Arlene Faith.

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