There’s not much that feels like Spring most Februarys. Chances are you’re still deep in wool-sweater, fluffy-coat mode, sipping many mugs of hot spiced mead or tea.
But there’s a change on the horizon.
The days are beginning to grow longer, after all. As the sun peeks in, the Northern world starts to remember its path toward the light. It is time to celebrate Imbolc.
Imbolc is the ancient Celtic holiday welcoming the return of Spring, celebrated February 1st-2nd.
It’s halfway between the Winter Solstice(at Yule), and the Spring Equinox(called Ostara). The word ‘Imbolc’ means ‘in the belly’ in Old Irish- specifically about the ewes who were going to give birth in the Spring. There’s some discussion of the word coming from terms that mean ‘cleansing’ as well.
Imbolc also honors the Irish goddess Brigid, who is associated with fertility, fire, water, poetry, wisdom, healing, smithing, prophecy, and divination. Yes, she’s obviously quite powerful.
You can imagine the stirring of a new lamb growing, getting ready to be born, just as the Spring is beginning to stir in the Earth.
Imbolc is a meaningful time of transition, for people and for our living world!
Historical Significance of Imbolc
We don’t know a lot about the ancient origins of Imbolc, but we do see references to it in early Irish texts dating to the 7th Century A.D. and onward. We also know Imbolc was part of the pre-Christian Gaelic civilization that existed across all of Ireland. When Anglo-Normans invaded in 1170, the culture then persisted in patches around the occupation, until about the 17th Century.
One early reference to Imbolc appears in a story from The Ulster Cycle, a collection of ancient Irish mythology.
The story is Tomach Emire, or ‘The Wooing of Emer’ where the famed hero Cú Chulainn attempts to win the hand of a maiden named Emer. Imbolc is mentioned as the festival "when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning."
The story notes Imbolc as one of four main seasonal festivals, along with Beltane(May Day, the beginning of Summer), Lughnasadh(the beginning of Harvest), and Samhain(the end of Harvest and beginning of Winter).
The Goddess Brigid
Brigid is a Celtic goddess and member of the Tuath De, or tribe of gods, of ancient Ireland.
Brigid is the one whose blessing you’d ask over the new births of spring creatures, and the fresh shoots and leaves and buds getting ready to blossom. You turn to her to receive the creative genius that fuels a tale or a poem, or to cleanse yourselves and your energy for a brand new year.
Brigid is a complex goddess, or even a trio of goddesses, depending on various interpretations. Her connection to fire brings the return of the light and warmth of Spring, balanced with her ties to water, which flows in wells and waterways held sacred in her honor across the land.
And as for being a triple goddess, in the lore, there are three deities referred to as ‘Brigid,’ each representing a different domain: Brigid the poet, Brigid the smith, or Brigid the healer. Triple Goddesses are not unheard of in Irish mythology; the Morrigan is also considered a triple goddess.
It’s most common to understand Brigid’s divine complexity as threefold. In some interpretations, though, there are three individual goddesses, where Brigid has two sisters, each also named Brigid.
Imbolc Rituals and How to Celebrate Imbolc
The season of Spring has many obvious ties to the idea of renewal and rebirth, but at Imbolc, they channel additional divine meaning. Cleansing and renewal are tied to both fire and water- which, of course, are two major domains of the goddess Brigid.
Brigid’s connection to fire also represents the idea of burning the old to make way for the new. It was important to keep the fires lit and burning at Imbolc. The added benefit was that it would warm everyone up throughout the February rituals!
As water and waterways are also associated with Brigid, water’s more obvious relationship to cleansing at Imbolc is referenced in an ancient text called the Hibernica Minora: the old poem says: "this is what is proper at Imbolc: washing the hands, the feet, the head".
Imbolc was Brigid’s time, and her eventual feast day. Later, February 1st became her saint’s day, after the Christianization of Ireland, when she became known as Saint Brigid or Saint Bridget.
These are some of the main customs and ceremonies from ancient times for Imbolc and the goddess Brigid. Modern Pagans and Druids around the world still practice many of these rituals to welcome the Spring:
Lighting with Fire and Candles
Since Brigid is associated with fire, and of course the fire is a cleansing force and source of light, growth, and healing, lighting and tending fires is important at Imbolc.
Another Christianized version of the holiday is called Candlemas, held on February 2nd. Candlemas involves(you guessed it) lighting candles! But for reasons related to the Christian calendar.
Competitions of Poetry and Storytelling, or Eisteddfod
Making the most of Brigid’s creative influence is important when you’re honoring her! Telling stories, reciting poems, and sharing creative works with your fellow revelers was always a part of Imbolc.
In Druid rituals, there’s a tradition of storytelling called Eisteddfod. Eisteddfod is a Welsh term for a festival competition of poetry, singing, and other arts. Druids keep close to the longtime tradition of Imbolc storytelling to honor the gifts of Brigid’s creativity.
Ancient Pagans wove four-pointed crosses with reeds, or rushes– plants from the water, of course, as a nod to Brigid’s water symbolism.
They’d hang the crosses over their doors to welcome in Brigid, and she’d protect the home from any ill-meaning spirits.
Celebrators throughout the ages fashioned doll likenesses of Brigid out of natural materials, like the reeds or rushes you’d use for her cross, and would decorate them with flowers or shells.
Brigid dolls can be kept in the home, often near the fireplace, throughout the year, to symbolize fertility. At Imbolc, they can be burned to welcome Brigid’s return and signify the time of renewal.
Creating an Imbolc Altar
Creating an altar to honor Brigid at Imbolc. Set on a peaceful table or place in the home, a Brigid altar can include candles, Brigid’s cross, flowers that bloom in the spring(especially snowdrops, white flowers representing the fresh new beginnings of the year), and any precious or special items of power and personal significance.
Baking and Crafting
Baking bread(creating nourishment with fire!) and making food or crafts to honor Brigid’s creative influence is a delicious and much loved way to celebrate.
Druids also honor the renewal aspects of Imbolc by “reskilling,” or learning new skills to deepen our abilities to live with and on this earth. For example, learning to grow and harvest our own food, or provide for ourselves within nature, are skills we can focus on learning anytime. Imbolc, though, is opportune for refocus and regeneration in nature.
Mead for Imbolc Celebrations
Mead, also known as honey wine, has long been an important part of ancient Celtic celebrations. In fact, it was so well beloved in Gaelic Ireland that there’s a banquet hall near the Hill of Tara(the seat of the old High Kings of Ireland) called Tech Mid Chuarda, or the “Mead Circling House.”
The seasonal festivals, honoring the gods and passage of time on Earth, were perfect for the celebration and sacredness of mead drinking. Beekeeping was present in Ireland from about the 5th Century, so mead was available for feasting, merrymaking, and drinking on important occasions.
No celebration as important as Imbolc would have been missing toasts with mead!
If you’re celebrating Imbolc–- or if you’re just someone who likes mead and other honey wines, and the prospect of some warmer days ahead– we’d love to recommend Ekhidna- the raspberry chocolate mead or Weewillmeqk our Blueberry mead.
Perhaps they’ll inspire you to write a poem, or bask in the warmth of a fire while waiting for Spring.