Imbolc meaning “in the belly” is one of the four principal festivals of the Irish calendar. It is celebrated either at the beginning of February or at the first local signs of Spring. Several Christians term the day as “the feast of the Purification of the Virgin” or “Candlemas”. This festival is basically dedicated to the goddess Brigid, subsequently in the Christian period it was adopted as St Brigid’s Day.
In the recent times, you would see the modern Pagans celebrating Imbolc rituals on 1st or 2nd February. Though some Neopagans share this celebration to the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. It actually falls later in the first week of the month. Now, as the Celtic year was based on both solar and lunar cycles, the holiday is most likely to be celebrated on the full moon day.
Wiccans perform Imbolc rituals as one of four “fire festivals”, which formulate half of the eight holidays (or “sabbats”), of the wheel of the year. They define Imbolc as a cross-quarter day or midway between the winter solstice (called Yule) and the spring equinox (called Ostara).
The significant aspect of this festival is fire and purification. Brigid (also referred as Brighid, Br de, Brigit, Br d) is recognized as the Celtic Goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing for whom the day is sacred. The lighting of candles signifies the return of warmth and the growing power of the Sun in the coming months.
A brief study of the origin of Imbolc Rituals
You can have an idea of how Imbolc used to be celebrated in Ireland, from ancient Celtic manuscripts collected in the 19th and early 20th century. It elaborately describes the festival, and folklore in rural Ireland and Scotland. These materials can also be compared with studies of similar customs in Scandinavia along with the customs maintained till the present date in the Celtic nations and Scottish Diasporas.
Imbolc Rituals performed during the festival
Rituals performed on this day include hearth fires, divination, special foods, or simply watching for omens (performed either seriously or as children’s game). A lot of candles are lit up and an outdoor bonfire is also enjoyed, if the weather lets it. Imbolc is principally a festival of the hearth and home. This celebration marks the early signs of spring and lengthening of days.
You find an exciting folk tradition called the Brigid’s Bed that still persists both in Christian and Pagan homes on Imbolc day (St. Brigid’s Day). The girls and young, unmarried women of the household or village craft a “corn dolly” that represents Brigid or the Brideog (also known as “young Brigid” or “little Brigid”). They adorn it with ornaments like shells or stones and tie beautiful ribbons on it. A bed is prepared for the Brideog to lie down.
On 31st January, which is on the St. Brigid’s Eve, the girls and young women get together in a house to keep on whole night with the Brideog. Later on all the young men of the community visit this house, but should take permission to enter the abode. Once they are in the room they have to treat them and the corn dolly with respect.
It is believed that Brigid walks on the earth on the eve of Imbolc. Each member of the household usually keeps a piece of clothing or strip of cloth outside before going to bed, for Brigid to bless. In the morning, the head of the household smothers the fire and scrape the ashes smooth. Then they look for a mark on the ashes as a sign of Brigid’s appearance on that night or morning.
Imbolc is a festival of honoring the Goddess Brighid. People celebrate this day by welcoming the spring and lengthening of days.