Imbolc is one of four ancient Celtic/ Gaelic festivals, the others being Beltaine, celebrated on May 1st; Lughnasadh, on Aug 1st; and Samhain, held on Nov 1st.
Imbolc (pronounced I-molk) falls half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and is traditionally held on the first day of February in celebration of the arrival of Spring.
It is associated with the onset of the lambing season, and the lactation of ewes; in fact, in Old Irish, Imbolc actually comes from words meaning ‘in the belly’, which refers to the pregnancy of ewes.
It is thought to have been an important date as far back as Neolithic times. Studies of the ancient stone monuments of Ireland have shown some of them to be aligned with the rising sun on the morning of Imbolc, the inner chamber of the Mound of Hostages on the Hill of Tara being a perfect example.
The festival is also associated with the Goddess Brigid. Brigid (pronounced Breesht) was a princess of the Tuatha de Danann, an ancient, supernatural race which ruled Ireland in the distant days of Irish Mythology.
Her name means ‘the exalted one’, and she was the daughter of the Dagda, another well respected ancient Irish deity. Brigid went on to marry Bres who became HIgh King, and together they had a son named Ruadan.
Brigid was said to be beautiful, kind and wise, and as such beloved by the people. She was patroness of poetry, the smith, healing, cattle and livestock, fire, and of course Spring.
She was later adopted by the Christians and absorbed into their doctrines when the local people refused to give her up even though they accepted the new religion.
As Saint Brigid of Kildare, she was honoured by nineteen nuns lighting and maintaining a perpetual, sacred flame, which continued until the suppression of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. Although it is believed the origins of this custom lie much further back in forgotten ancient pagan ritual.
Nowadays, children in schools around Ireland are taught to make Brigid’s Cross out of rushes, subsequently to be hung on the door frames of their family homes until the following Imbolc. This invites St Brigid into the home to bless the family and keep them safe for another year.
For me, Imbolc is a time of hope and optimism, and looking ahead to the future. It’s nice to think that winter is nearly over, and warmer sunnier days are just around the corner. The days are already getting noticeably longer and brighter. If only it wasn’t snowing…