February 1st marks the half-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is on this date that we celebrate Imbolc. A fire festival, Imbolc is celebrated in anticipation of the return of spring. The name ‘Imbolc’ is from an old Irish term that means “in the belly” and may have also evolved from another word referring to the lactation of ewes. Both of these things symbolize preparation for new life.
At this time of year we can see the lengthening days and early signs of spring. An old tradition of watching to see if animals (a serpent or badger in old times) came out of hibernation indicated the time of winter remaining. This has been transformed into a modern tradition you probably know as Groundhog Day.
There is a story from Scotland that tells of the crone goddess Cailleach (a possible pronunciation would be ‘kahlyukh’), who rules through the dark winter months. She makes a journey to a magical isle on which lies the Well of Youth. As the sun rises, she drinks from the well and is transformed into a maiden once again. In this new form, the goddess brings new life once again to the earth.
The name of the maiden aspect of the goddess in this tale is Brigid (with many different spellings and pronunciations, I prefer to say “Bree”). She is the goddess of poetry, healing, and the forge. At this time of year Brigid’s crosses (pictured above) are made and exchanged as symbols of prosperity and protection in the coming season of growth. Candles are lit in each room of the home to welcome the sun and its warmth. In honor of Brigid’s purity, a thorough cleaning and purification of the home often takes place at this time of year – our carryover is spring cleaning.
Brigid is often seen as a young bride. Many old traditions involve creating a small female figure from a sheaf of corn and honoring her as a spirit of purity and youth. A wand would be fashioned for the doll, and in the evening before bed, the ashes of the fireplace would be smoothed over. In the morning, the family would look for markings from the doll’s wand, or perhaps even a footprint, that would show that the goddess had visited the home (in so doing blessing it).
Today, many Christians celebrate Candlemas, or St. Brigid’s Day on February 2nd. This holiday’s patron Saint was most likely adapted from the pagan goddess, and many of the Candlemas traditions harken to those celebrated by pagans prior to the rise of Christianity. For many in the Christian community, the holiday is celebrated as the “Purification of the Virgin”.
For centuries in Kildare, Ireland, a fire burned in Brigid’s name. Believed to be the flame of the goddess Brigid, it had been protected by followers of her path and many believed by Brigid herself. It was put out twice in recorded history, but has been relit in recent decades and now burns in honor of Brigid in the Market Square of Kildare.