Not deferential enough: Imbolc

Posted Tuesday, January 28, 2014 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Imbolc

St. Brigid's Cross, made of reeds.

by Gina Hamilton

The next festival in the Wheel of the Year is Imbolc, the feast of the first ewe's milk, which falls on the first or second of February, and is connected to Bridie Day (the feast of St. Brigid) as well as Candlemas, the purification of the Virgin Mary after the birth of her son.

Not surprisingly, all the festivals share certain elements, including candlelight, the purification of the home in advance of spring, and the financial arrangement with farm laborers for the upcoming agricultural year.  The date is often called 'Lady Day' when contracting with laborers, as in "We'll sign the contract at Lady Day."  Ewe's milk begins to come in just before lambing season begins, so it is the herald of a long, cold period of watching over sheep in the fields at night, which perversely enough, is when most lambs seem to want to be born.

Bridie, or Brigid, is a pagan Celtic goddess.  She is a triune goddess - maiden, mother, and crone - who presides over one or another of the eight festivals of the Wheel in one of her forms.  For Bridie's Day, it is the maiden who is called.  Children make Bridie crosses for each of the village doors, and young girls carry a Bridie doll, a Brideog, which is a doll made of corn or wheat, vaguely in a human female shape, from door to door and bless each household.

The dolls are carefully preserved, and interred with the first grain planted in the spring. 

In the Celtic tradition, it is time for linens and bedding to be aired out, as well as mostly unwashable clothing, such as woolen coats and fur garments and the like. They are carried outdoors on Bridie's Eve and left for the goddess to bless.  Homes are cleaned at the same time, an early "spring cleaning". 

St. Brigid of Kildare was probably a real person who founded an abbey at Kildare in the 5th century that was a co-hospitale, which means essentially that it contained both nuns and monks, some of whom may have been married and formed family units.  However, she was conflated with the goddess Brigid early on.   Little is known about her, except that she is sometimes called Mary of the Gael, which suggests that she, like the pagan goddess, had a maiden, mother, and crone personage.  Her feast day is February 1, which is the eve of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas.  She is one of the patron saints of Ireland, along with St. Patrick and St. Columba.

At Imbolc, it is also traditional for the babies born in the previous year to be given a formal name.  Each infant has a candlebearer, usually a female relative, who carries a lighted candle on which the child's name is carved or decorated in wax.  The candlebearer is followed by the baby and his or her mother.  When the candlebearers bring the lighted candle to the festival location, which is normally in a wooded grove, the candles are placed upright in a container filled with sand.  The woman or girl who speaks for Bridie at the festival speaks the formal names of the babies for the first time aloud.  Prior to that time, the infant is given a familiar name that is used by the family. She then blows out each candle and gives it to the infant's mother.  On the child's birthdays, the candle is lit for a brief time in celebration.

Also traditional at Imbolc is the beginning of a period of personal purification.  Fats are finished up for the year and a period of meager rations begin.  The date aligns, more or less, with the beginning of Lent in the Catholic tradition.  Most likely, this period of purification would have been required anyway, because until spring, few fresh foods would be available and the rendered fats would have been finished, especially after the Yule festivals.  Typical purification foods included cheeses, flat breads, fish if they could be obtained, root vegetables, and dry fruits.

On Bridie night, each household would place in its front window three candles which would be left to burn all night.  In the Celtic tradition, the three candles represent the triune persons of the goddess.  For St. Brigid, the three candles represent the Trinity, brought to Ireland by Brigid's friend St. Patrick.  For the Virgin, the candles represent the three members of the Holy Family.

The weather on Candlemas was supposed to predict the weather for the rest of the winter. 

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again.

This rhyme eventually became the Groundhog Day tradition, in which if the groundhog can see his shadow (if the day be fair and bright), winter will return for six weeks.


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