The Festival of Lights & Brighid
By Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. 🐾
Known as Imbolg or Imbolc. The Old Irish gaeilge i mbolg translates to “in the belly”. Linguistic historians say this refers to the pregnancy of ewes and links the festival to fertility. As gaeilge progressed and evolved, Imbolg eventually becomes Imbolc. Thus the holiday is known by these two names. So either is correct.
Because the feis or festival is associated as the first spring holiday, it is linked to the returning of the sun, along with longer and warmer days. As such, it becomes known as Imbolc: the Festival of Lights.
In Celtic ceremony, Imbolg falls between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox on February 1st or 2nd in the Northern Hemisphere and August 1st in the Southern Hemisphere.
It was an important festival even in Neolithic times. Celebration was set on the timing of the sun’s alignment to several megalithic monuments. One of the most important being the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara. The inner chamber of the mound was aligned with the rising sun on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain.
This makes Imbolg one of the four original Celtic seasonal festivals, along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. It appears in some of the earliest written Irish literature and is celebrated by both early Pagans and later by Christians in an attempt to convert pagan holidays.
Imbolg is the festival of the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess. Brid (also Brighid or Bridget), is the traditional Goddess associated with this time of year as she seen as the young maiden. At this time she is the bride who is awaiting the return of her groom, the sun God who will court her until their wedding at Beltane.
She is the Celtic goddess of poetry (wisdom), the hearth (home/family) and smith craft (fire). As the Maiden Goddess she is also seen as the Goddess of Fertility, nourishment and in some traditions divination. She is also often associated with the innocence of youth and children coming of age. As such she has a connection to fertility.
Imbolg can also be seen as a celebration of the return of the sun or “the return of the light from the dark of winter”. It is also associated with the slow return of spring (in this case early spring), when new life is formed. Many animals who are nearing the end of their gestation begin nesting at this time. Preparing dens, mangers, nets and a like to create a safe warm place to have their babies when spring arrives in earnest. This activity maybe the reason the holiday is associated Brighid in the form of home/hearth as well as fertility.
In legend she is the daughter of Daghdha, The Great God and his wife, who has three names Breng (lie), Meng (guile) and Maebel (disgrace). She bore him three daughters, all of whom were named Brighid, carrying on the examples of the triple goddess.
Brighid¹, is said to have been born on the threshold of a her house, at dawn. Quickly after her birth she began suckling on the milk of a supernatural cow from the Celtic Otherworld. The cow later became her totem.
According to Wikipedia:
At Imbolc, Brighid’s crosses were made and a doll-like figure of Brighid, called a Brídeóg, would be carried from house-to-house. Brighid was said to visit one’s home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brighid and leave her food and drink, while items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless. Brighid was also invoked to protect livestock. Holy wells were visited and it was also a time for divination.
Brighid’s popularity was so grand that she easily crossed over in recognition from Pagans to Christians. A temple was erected in her honor in Kildare, Ireland. Medieval chronicles describe an eternal flame maintained in the temple, suggesting the purpose of the fire is to honor her illumination and exulted spirit.
In Christianity, she is said to be have been the mid-wife to Mary for the birth of Jesus. Who later became the foster-mother of the sacred child. She was attended to by 19 nuns who assisted her and guard a grotto surrounded by a hedge. Inside the grotto, was a sacred fire, into which no man was allowed to enter. To celebrate her commitment to Jesus and assistance to Mary, the Celtic Christians honored her as a Saint and celebrated her gifts at the great feast on February 1st as the Festival of Lights. Clearly a celebration of her illumination, which is said to have filled any house she entered.
The Purpose of Imbolg
As a holiday this is the time when Celtic Pagans honor Brighid specifically and what she represents to the rebirth of the world for spring and summer.
Shamanistic Celtic Pagans (those that do not honor the Celtic pantheon) will honor the spirit of the season and focus on rebirth of the world, the inner spirit, the female spirit and divination. In this practice, Imbolg represents the time of honoring and nurturing the spirit within. Examine your spiritual purpose, or even search for your magikal name. Take stock of your supplies, and put your plans for the year into action.
For many Celtic practitioners this is the time of the year when young boys and girls are honored through a coming of age ceremony. Typically at the age of 13 for boys, but for girls it may come after they enter into their first menstrual cycle.
Traditional Wiccans will focus on the female energy and spirit. Rituals or gatherings are often restricted to the female members of a coven or group. And specific rites for women are enacted.
Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolg is the traditional time for initiations.
For general Pagan observances it can also be a time to express your own creativity through art and craft. From something as simple as crafting a wreath for the season, or something elaborate as a painting or sculpture. The art is an expression of your inner spirit that is being crafted in the illumination of the Divine Universe, or in this case Brighid.
Some practitioners like linking their altar decorations with this holiday as well. Creating seasonal decorations for the Spring season and the remaining spring holidays. There are 3 of these, each one having its own decoration.
Imbolg was also a time of weather divination. Early Celtic Pagans associated the serpent with their beliefs, typically this serpent was a dragon, but later it also became associated with the sea eel. Early Irish Christians associated the serpent with snakes. It’s important to note that after the Ice Age, there were no snakes in Ireland.
An old tradition of watching the den of a serpent or badger to see if they would emerge from their winter den is described at this time through an old gaeilge poem.
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
“The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.”
This tradition is probably the forerunner to the modern American version of watching the Ground hog find his shadow. Combine this with another old piece of folklore about the Divine Hag, and you can see even more connections. The Divine Hag was most often associated with one of the Triple Goddesses, the Morrigan, the Cailleach from Scotland and a few other regional deities.
The Cailleach emerges from her wintry woods to gather firewood. When she wishes the winter to be longer, she will make Imbolg bright and sunny to light her way through the forest where she can gather more firewood. If she sleeps through Imbolg and the day is cold and foul, it means winter is almost over and Brighid will emerge with warmth and beauty.
On the Isle of Man the divine hag is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh. Here the legend explains that Caillagh appears as gigantic bird over the Isle. If she is seen carrying sticks in her beak, winter is almost over as she is making her nest for spring. If she is seen without sticks, winter will continue as she has not found a consort to warm her heart.These stories of course have their variations depending on region and who’s doing the retelling. But their elements certainly sound familiar to our groundhog shadowing.
As with any holiday, there are many ways to celebrate Imbolg within the pagan traditions. One old tradition is to start your own eternal fire, at least for the duration of the holiday as a means of honoring Brighid and the returning of light to the world. You can do this by lighting a specially selected white candle, or even a nice log fire to cut the cold chill of this early spring month. But remember, Do Not leave any fire, candle or otherwise unattended.
On Imbolg, Women weave what was called “Brid’s Baby” (what today is called Brighid’s Cross) to call upon the favor of the Celtic Goddess Brighid. Making the cross on this day was/is an act of asking Brighid to honor the family with fertility. This can be for children in the family, for food that will grow in the garden or in field for livestock that will provide for the family. Learn how to make a Brighid’s Cross.
During the day, take an inventory of your magikal closet and supplies. Express your own inner spiritual light through some creative endeavor, something that can be used during your ritual celebration in the evening.
Start your celebration at dusk with a family dinner. Because of Brighid’s connection with nourishment through the symbol of milk, we like to prepare a cream based entrée. Such as Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo, which is one of my favorites. With scalloped potatoes, late fall vegetables and honey milk biscuits.
During dinner thank those who may have helped you during the year to expand your personal spiritual quest or path. Think of this as your way of thanking those who have helped to nourish your own inner enlightenment. This can be a formal teacher, or anyone present who has supported you in some way. Express how they’ve helped and what it has meant to you. They don’t have to be present to say a small prayer of thanks to Brighid for showing that person into your life.
After your meal, share the chore of cleaning up. This is a way of showing honor and respect to your host and especially your hostess. Think of it as a physical action to show that you understand the interconnection of all life and the desire to respect what you have been given and thanks for receiving those gifts.
During the evening hours you can continue the festival with a formal holiday ritual. There are as many ways and suggestions for conducting such a ceremony as there are people on this planet. Do some research and find an outline that works best for you.
As always, end your evening in private reflection. It is important for anyone practicing a spiritual life to reflect on his or her actions. Record your thoughts, your emotions and your experiences. This is the true value of your book of shadows. And there is no better time to take stock of yourself and your life than during a High Holy Day.
You can find more about the High Holy Days: The Pagan Sabbats, to discover why they’re observed at sunset and their timing through the year.
© 2013 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Springs Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.