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What is Imbolc?

Updated on February 4, 2013

Imbolc Celebration

Imbolc is a Celtic fire festival celebrated annually on February 2nd, and is one of the pagan sabbats on the wheel of the year. But just what is Imbolc exactly? Here you will learn all about the origins of Imbolc, as well as Imbolc rituals, traditions, recipes and more.

Celebrating the Celtic goddess Brighid and the forthcoming spring, Imbolc is the original Candlemas. Learn about this beautiful festival and how you can integrate it into your own life to help you live closer to Mother Earth and her turning wheel of seasons.

Photo Credit: Snowdrops via Wikimedia Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

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All content copyright of the author. First published January 2013.

Imbolc Ewe and Lamb. Photo copyright of the author
Imbolc Ewe and Lamb. Photo copyright of the author

What is Imbolc, and when is it Celebrated?

The Origins of Imbolc

In the northern hemisphere, Imbolc is generally celebrated on 2nd February. However, this can vary. Some celebrate Imbolc on February 1st, others on the 2nd, while author Cassandra Eason states in her book, The Modern-Day Druidess, that "Imbolc is celebrated from sunset on 31st January to sunset on 2nd February."

Others shy away from the Gregorian calendar altogether, choosing to celebrate when the first signs of spring appear, such as the first snowdrops peeping through in the United Kingdom. In the southern hemisphere, Imbolc falls on July 31st.

Photo Credit: Ewe and Lamb in Scotland. Copyright of the author

Imbolc is primarily a pagan festival, celebrating both the goddess Brighid and the promise of forthcoming spring. It holds transformative power, with traditional rituals including cleaning the house, making changes and dedicating oneself to new magical goals for the coming year. This is where the concept of 'spring cleaning' came from!

Imbolc, pronounced "Imm-aulk", literally translates as "in the belly of the mother", while its Celtic name, Oimelc, means "ewe's milk". It marks the first signs of spring, when the ewes would start lactating for their newborn young. This was a significant event in past times, as it meant dairy products returning to the diet of village folk.

Photo Credit: Lamb licensed from JupiterImages Corporation.

The new agricultural season begins, and the Crone of winter starts to give way to the Maiden of spring. However, there are still several weeks of winter to go, so many Imbolc rituals often focus on keeping that promise of spring alive in our thoughts, so as to keep spirits high.

The celebration is known as the festival of Brighid, as it honours this Celtic goddess.

Imbolc Celebration - Beautiful Video Explaining and Depicting the Meaning of Imbolc

Imbolc, Festival of Brighid

Brighid's Healing on Amazon
Brighid's Healing on Amazon

Photo Credit: Brighid's Healing: Ireland's Celtic Medicine Traditions

Imbolc is also known as Brighid's Day. Brighid, pronounced "Bree-ed", is a Celtic goddess, often considered a Triple goddess. This is because of her three aspects as goddess of healing, goddess of smithcraft, and goddess of inspiration and divination, rather than the usual Maiden, Mother and Crone aspects. She is a fire goddess associated with both sun and moon, and her sacred flame was tended at her healing well in Kildare, Ireland by nineteen priestesses, until this became a Christianised shrine to St. Brigid, later tended by nuns. Brighid is thought to be one of the Tuatha De Danann, and is half-sister to the god Aengus.

There are many myths and legends surrounding Brighid, and you can read about some of them in the article Who is Brighid?, such as the tale of her hanging her cloak on the sun's rays, her connection with Archangel Michael, and her associations both as Celtic sun goddess, and later, patron saint of Ireland.

There is also much to be learned from the animals, birds and trees associated with Brighid, such as the symbolism of her four sacred animals - the bird of prey, the cow, and snake and the wolf. The article link discusses these and numerous other animals, birds and trees that are connected to Brighid, and their meaning.

Learn More about the Goddess Brighid

Brighid's Healing: Ireland's Celtic Medicine Traditions
Brighid's Healing: Ireland's Celtic Medicine Traditions

This book outlines the history of Brighid, studies her water and fire aspects, and covers traditional and spiritual lore connected both to Brighid and traditional Irish healing, along with flower essences, herbal healing and recipes.

BUY Brighid's Healing FROM AMAZON.COMBUY Brighid's Healing FROM AMAZON.CO.UK

(Also available in Kindle format from both sites)

 

Imbolc - The Origins of Candlemas - How a Celtic Goddess became a Saint

Saint Brigid - Image licensed from Fotolia
Saint Brigid - Image licensed from Fotolia

Photo Credit: Saint Brigid licensed from Fotolia

When the church Christianised the pagan festivals and deities, Brighid was merged with the real Christian figure of Saint Brigid, and her festival became Candlemas.

Saint Brigid lived from the mid 5th century until 525AD. Various legends tell of her being the daughter of a druid, and midwife to the Virgin Mary.

As with Brighid, she is associated with healing wells, and when Pope Gregory declared monasteries to be built upon pagan sites, Brighid's sacred place at Kildare was turned into a community of nuns, who guarded the sacred flame for centuries, never letting it burn out.

Many offerings are placed at the shrine of St Brigid's Well, and it is unsurprising to find she is also known as "Mary of the Gael", as statues such as this one below are very reminiscent of Mother Mary.

Photo Credit: Statue of Saint Brigid taken at St Brigid's Holy Well

Candlemas was introduced to the eastern Church in 542AD, and is celebrated on February 2nd. It commemorates the purification of Mary in the Temple of Jerusalem, exactly 40 days after the birth of Jesus. In Biblical times, Jewish women were only permitted to return to the Temple 40 days after giving birth to a boy, and 80 days after giving birth to a girl, where they would then be purified of sin, and the child presented to the congregation.

The Church procession that takes place today at Candlemas is representative of Christ's entry into the temple. Priests bless all the candles that will be used during the coming year, and some are handed out to the congregation. Many people also bring their own candles to be blessed. Some of these candles are then lit and carried in a procession. It is also tradition to light candles in house windows on this day.

Imbolc is also associated with weather lore, and it is interesting to note this traditional rhyme of Candlemas, which continues to borrow from its pagan origins by offering a prophecy on the weather conditions of the remaining winter.

If Candlemas be fair and bright

Winter has another flight

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain

Winter will not come again

So in other words, a fair-weather Candlemas is bad news for the rest of winter!

Songs for Brighid, Sacred Goddess of Imbolc - Beautiful Video Showcase of the Goddess Brighid

Imbolc Candle
Imbolc Candle

Imbolc Traditions

Because of the association with Brighid and women, Imbolc would often see the women of the house taking part in rituals or meditations, while the men of the house had to sleep elsewhere for the night.

On the eve of February 1st, folk put out a piece of cloth, material or ribbon for Brighid to bless, for it is says that she walks amongst the towns and villages on this night. If the cloth is marked in the morning, it means she has blessed the household.

A traditional Imbolc custom is to light white candles and invoke Brighid for her healing and wisdom. Another is to make a Brighid's cross (below).

Photo Credit: White candle for Imbolc - copyright of the author

Photo Credit: St Brigid's Cross via Wikimedia Commons

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

HOW TO MAKE A BRIGID'S CROSS

You can buy Brighid's or Brigid's crosses but is is customary to make your own, both for Imbolc and Candlemas. You will need straw or reeds, or construction paper if you cannot get your hands on natural materials. This step by step tutorial on how to make a Brighid's Cross uses easy-to-follow diagrams and also suggests the child-friendly version of using pipe cleaners if you are crafting with small children!

MORE IMBOLC RITUALS, CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS

Other traditions associated with Imbolc include the initiation of new witches or druids into their Craft. Many would choose Brighid as their goddess guide.

Cleaning the home physically, and spiritually in the form of house blessings, are commonplace events. Use the power of Imbolc to clean and bless your home, dedicate yourself to new goals, and sweep out the old energy you wish to be rid of!

As with all pagan festivals, cooking seasonal foods associated with the particular celebration is commonplace. Traditional Imbolc foods include bread, milk, apples, garden produce that has been stored over winter, and oats.

For more information on celebrating Imbolc, the article Imbolc: Festival of Brighid talks about Imbolc rituals, recipes, attending fire festivals, traditional house blessings and spring cleaning, and much more.

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Books about Imbolc and the Wheel of the Year - Learn more about the Pagan Sabbats

Did you Enjoy Learning More about Imbolc? - Leave your Comments and Feedback here!

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    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 4 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      Thank you for the introduction to Imbolc, Festival of Brighid. I had no idea.

    • greenspirit profile image

      poppy mercer 4 years ago from London

      Lovely article about Imbolc. I'll link to it on my snowdrops and Imbolc page if I may.

    • Richard-H profile image

      Richard 4 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      I hadn't heard of Imbolc before, so it was interesting to learn about it here!

    • JumpinJake profile image

      JumpinJake 4 years ago

      sure was fun to read about this holiday as I didn't know about it and sure learned from your review.

    • kerryhrabstock profile image

      kerryhrabstock 4 years ago

      How nice. You got me with your lens title. I had to say, "What?" Never stop learning.

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      SquidAngel blessed! ;-)

    • Frischy profile image

      Frischy 4 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      When I was a graduate student, many years ago, I learned a bit about the way Christianity took over Europe, incorporating pagan traditions with the Judeo-Christian doctrines. What we have today would be unrecognizable to first century Christians. Of course, this was all done to brainwash pagans and their children as well, and we now live with that legacy after all these hundreds of years have passed. So fascinating that what we now think of as Christian holidays, are actually pagan holidays that have absolutely nothing to do with Christ or Christianity! Not a popular perspective, yet totally accurate.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      This article explaining Imbolc is very enlightening and informative. Thank you for the explanation.