Imbolc or Imbolg a.k.a. Candlemas, Groundhog Day, St.Brigid’s Day, Là Fhèill Brìghde, Lá Fhéile Bríde, Feast Day of St. Brigid, Spring Festival.
Celebrated February 1st or 2nd annually in the northern hemisphere, and August 1st or 2nd in the southern hemisphere.
Cultures: Gaels, Irish, Scottish, Manx, Neo-Pagans, Celtic Reconstructionists, Neo-Druids, Wiccans, Druids, Pagans.
Represents: hearth, home, lengthening days, early signs of Spring, birthing of ewes, milking of Ewes, milk, first stirrings of Spring, St. Brigid, candles, and first feasts.
“I mbolg” is Irish for “in the belly” and refers to the pregnancy of ewes. It has also been referred to as Oimelc referring to “Ew’s milk”. Imbolc is a popular Pagan holiday celebrating the marking of the first stirrings of Spring. Most commonly taking place traditionally on February 1st or 2nd, can take place also as late as February 12th in the Northern Hemisphere, and by new European settlers in the southern hemisphere celebrated around August 1st. It is a cross-quarter sabbat in modern Pagan faiths as a halfway mark between the Winter Solstice (Yule) and the Spring Equinox. The festival was first recorded to have been celebrated in the Middle Ages in Gaelic Ireland and was referred to as the “Tochmarc Emire of the Ulster Cycle” and was a cross-quarter day festival in Irish Mythology as one of four. The other four cross-quarter day festivals were Samhain, Beltane, and Lughnasad. Many believe it first celebrated the Goddess Brigid and later turned to represent the Saint Brigid. With growth of the Neo-Pagan movement of Shamanism, Celtic Spirituality, Druidism, Wicca, and Witchcraft, especially in relation to Celtic reconstructionism, “Imbolc” was revitalized as a Neo-pagan religious festival. As it was followed by Candlemas on February 2nd, as the Irish “Lá Fhéile Muire na gCoinneal” or “feast day of Mary of the Candles”, Welsh “Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau” the two festivals became blended together. Because some Irish Neolithic monuments are aligned to this date, such as the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, it is believed the holiday was celebrated much earlier than the Middle Ages. It appears however for the first time from folklore collected during the 19th-20th century in Rural Ireland and Scotland. The holiday represents the hearth, home, lengthening days, early signs of Spring, birthing of ewes, milking of Ewes, milk, first stirrings of Spring, St. Brigid, candles, and first feasts. It is celebrated with hearth fires, butter, milk, bannocks, divination, seeking of prophecy, omens, oracles, candles, bonfires, weather divination, Groundhogs, badgers, snakes, festivals of light, early Spring celebrations, celebrations of Fire, purification, the Goddess Brigid, or St Brigid.
The Annals of the Four masters records Brigit to having died February 1st, 525 AD. Others believe this was the date of her birth. Because St. Brigid was believed to have died or born on February 1st, the date has been dedicated to her. The date also coincides with the Festival of St. Brigid of Kildare at this time. The association with Brigid / Brighid / Bríde / Brigit / Brìd, the festival is also related to holy wells, Brigid’s crosses, sacred flames, healing, poetry, smithcraft, and magic. In Gaelic tradition, Imbolc also is the time of the “Hag” or the “Cailleach” who gathers her firewood for the rest of winter. If she desires a longer winter, she makes sure the weather on this date is bright and sunny so she can gather more wood. If she’s ready for it to be over, this date will be overcast, cold, or with foul weather. If the snakes come out of their holes, badgers come to the surface, or the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be more winter. If they do not come out, then they are asleep and winter is almost over. The lighting of fires, candles, bonfires, and hearths represents the return of warmth and the growing power of the sun. As the Feast of St. Brigid, Lá Fhéile Bríde, and Lá Feabhra – Candlemas and Imbolc is celebrated as the official first day of Spring. Craft-wise this is honored by the handcrafting of the Brigid’s Bed when young unmarried girls would create a corn dolly representing Brigid called the Brideog (Little Brigid) adorned with ribbons, shells, and stones lying on a bed. On St. Brigid’s Eve (January 31st) the girls would gather in a house for an all nighter sleepover with the Brideog, only later to be visited by the single young men of the community to come treat them and the corn dolly with tribute. As Brigid is believed to manifest of Imbolc Eve, another tradition is the leaving of a strip of cloth or clothing outside for Brigid to bless. Fires that night when extinguished would have their ashes raked smooth, and in the morning, the fire caretakers would inspect the ash for any kinds of markings for a sign that Brigid came through the hearth. Cloth and clothing left out that night would be brought back into the house and believed to possess magical healing and protective energies. On Imbolc, the girls carry the Brideog through the community from house to house where offerings are given to her. The date is also celebrated by the weaving of Brigid’s Cross.
Neopagan celebrations of this festival vary from tradition to tradition, religion to religion. Much of the traditional rites associated with the practices today are based on reconstructionist theory in its beginnings evolving to new traditions today. As previously said, it is a time of purification, and therefore a time of initiations and new beginnings.
- Adler, Margot. 1979: “Drawing Down the Moon”. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Bonewits, Isaac. 2006: “Essential Guide to Druidism”. New York: Kensington Publishing.
- Carmichael, Alexander. 1992: “Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations”. Hudson: New York, Lindisfarne Press.
- Chadwick, Nora. 1970: “The Celts”. London, Penguin books.
- Cultural Heritage Ireland. “Festival of Imbolc and St. Brigit”. Website referenced March 2012. http://www.culturalheritageireland.ie/index.php/irish-history-from-the-annals/80-irish-history-from-the-annals/174-the-festival-of-imbolc-and-st-brigit
- Danaher, Kevin. 1972: “The year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs”. Dublin, Mercier Books.
- Hutton, Ronald. 1996: “The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain”. New York: Oxford University Press.
- MacKillop, James. 1998: “Dictionary of Celtic Mythology”. New York: Oxford University press.
- Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. “Imbolc”. Website referenced March 2012. http://www.wikipedia.org.
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