Imbolc or Imbolg, which was also called Saint Brighid’s Day, is a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 31 January–1 February, or halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. It was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Kindred festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau.
The date of Imbolc is thought to have been significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period. This is based on the alignment of some Megalithic monuments. For example, at the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara – an ancient passage tomb located in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, Leinster, Ireland, the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain.
Imbolc, also called Oimealg, by the Druids, is the festival of the lactating sheep. It is derived from the Gaelic word “oimelc” which means “ewes milk”. Herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders. It is the time of blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. It marks the center point of the dark half of the year. It is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal.
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 (butter, milk, and bannocks, for example), 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.
Holy wells were also visited at Imbolc, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Beltane and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking ‘sunwise’ around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties – a traditional dessert pudding called clootie dumpling that is made with flour, breadcrumbs, dried fruit (sultanas and currants), suet, sugar and spice with some milk to bind it, and sometimes golden syrup. Water from the wells may have been used to bless things.
Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature. It was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brighid and was Christianized as a festival of Saint Brighid, who herself is thought to be a Christianization of the goddess.
Brighid was said to visit one’s home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brighid and leave her food and drink, while items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless. Brighid was also invoked to protect livestock. Holy wells were visited and it was also a time for divination.
Imbolc is immediately followed (on 2 February) by Candlemas – “feast day of Mary of the Candles”.
Wiccans celebrate a variation of Imbolc as one of the eight holidays (or “Sabbats”) of the Wheel of the Year. Imbolc is defined as a cross-quarter day, midway between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara). In Wicca, Imbolc is commonly associated with the goddess Brighid and as such it is sometimes seen as a “women’s holiday” with specific rites only for female members of a coven. Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolc is the traditional time for initiations.
Deities of Imbolc:
All Virgin/Maiden Goddesses, Brighid, Aradia, Athena, Inanna, Gaia, and Februa, and Gods of Love and Fertility, Aengus Og, Eros, and Februus.
Symbols of Imbolc:
Brideo’gas, Besoms, White Flowers, Candle Wheels, Brighid’s Crosses, Priapic Wands (acorn-tipped), and Ploughs.
Herbs of Imbolc:
Angelica, Basil, Bay Laurel, Blackberry, Celandine, Coltsfoot, Heather, Iris, Myrrh, Tansy, Violets, and all white or yellow flowers.
Trees of Imbolc: Luis, or the Rowan, is the tree usually assigned to this time of year in the Celtic (Ogham) Tree Alphabet. It has long associations with the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. It is also known as the ‘Quickening Tree’ and is associated with serpents. Traditionally it protects and wards of evil. A sprig of Rowan can be put near the door of your home (we have a whole tree), or a sprig worn for protection. Rowan berries have a tiny five-pointed star on the bottom reminiscent of the pentagram.
Willow – The fourth tree in the Celtic Tree alphabet – S Saille, is also long associated with the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. Willow is the great ‘shape shifter’ of consciousness and emotion and symbolizes feminine energy and the lunar cycle. Its branches are flexible – expressing movement and change rather than resistance. It is a tree of enchantment and dreaming, enhancing the confidence to follow one’s intuition, and inspires leaps of imagination.