The first of February is a special date in the Irish calendar, as it marks the first day of spring. Traditionally a pagan holiday, called Imbolg, which derived from the old Gaelic (Irish) word imbolc meaning “in the belly”. This refers to the pregnant ewes at this time of year, with their lambs soon to be born.
Apparently the earliest mentions of Imbolc in Irish literature dates back to the 10th century, with poetry from the time ‘relat[ing] the holiday to ewe’s milk, with the implication of purification’. (1)
Although one of the lesser-known festivals of the ancient Celts, Imbolg is one of the four most important festivals in the Celtic calendar. To our Celtic ancestors, it marks the cross-quarter time between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In tune with the seasons it is timed by the earth’s elliptical journey around the sun. It celebrates the arrival of longer, warmer days.
According to myths Brigid was born with a flame in her head and drank the milk of a mystical cow from the spirit world. Her name means ‘bright one’.
‘In her earliest incarnation, as Breo-Saighit, she was called the Flame of Ireland, Fiery Arrow…. Legend says that when She was born, a tower of flame reaching from the top of her head to the heavens. Her birth, which took place at sunrise, is rumored to have given the family house the appearance of being on fire.’ (2)
In some parts of the Scottish Highlands, she is viewed as a woman with mystical powers and older than the land itself.
She is also credited with the very first keening; a very beautiful vocal ritual art form performed by women at the wake or graveside in mourning of the dead. The word keening originates from the Gaelic caoineadh meaning ‘crying‘. It was a traditional form of ‘wailing for the dead’, so to speak.
The above is an example of Keening, by musical artist Kitty Gallagher
Although many of the Celtic and pagan customs for this festival sadly died out in the 20th century, St Brigid’s day is still very much celebrated. Next year (2023), for the first time ‘Imbolc & St Brigid’s Day’ will become a yearly public holiday in the Republic of Ireland.
Below are some of the traditions associated with Imbolc & St Brigid’s Day:
- The day of Imbolc was celebrated by burning lamps and lighting bonfires in tribute to the goddess Brigid.
- It was a time for divination. Holy wells were visited, and special feasts were had.
- Brigid was evoked to protect homes and livestock.
- In pre-Christian times, Imbolc observance began the night before. Brigid was said to go visiting homes on the eve of this festival. Celebrants prepared themselves for a visit from Brigid by crafting an effigy of the goddess from bundles of oats and rushes. The effigy was placed in a dress and put in a basket overnight.
- In more recent centuries this doll-like figure of Brigid (a Brídeóg) would be paraded from house-to-house by girls. Sometimes accompanied by ‘strawboys‘, or ‘wrenboys’ as they were also know.
- The day was also marked by the making of a Brigid’s cross; a traditions that remains very much alive today.
- To receive her blessings people would leave her an offering food and drink.