Today is Imbolc, and appropriately enough I was woken up by someone looking for a party at five o’clock this morning! Imbolc marks the first day of spring and was celebrated in Man, Ireland and Scotland as one of the four seasonal festivals. Today is also St. Brigid’s day, which is unlikely to be a coincidence as Imbolc was heavily associated with the Goddess Brighid in the pre-Christian period. Traditionally the celebrations actually start the evening before at sunset, in a way similar to the pairing of All Hallows Eve with All Saints Day.
Like Beltane, Imbolc continued being celebrated well into the Christian era in its new guise as the feast day of St. Brighid’s, though its connection to the saint meant it remained a much more religious festival than the secularised Beltane. As was often the case with converted holidays many of the folk traditions connected to the festival retained distinctly non-Christian overtones, and most certainly date back to the older celebration.
A lot of these traditions, as with every Gaelic celebration, involve fire or food or both, though water also features fairly heavily in Imbolc. Bonfires would be lit, and milk poured onto the ground and porridge into water as offerings to “earth and water.” Candles would be burned and special foods served the night before, and on the day itself people visited holy wells to pray for health. Brigid would be invited inside three times the night before, a number that most Indo-European cultures find significant, to where a bed had been made up for her. This invitation varied in form by region: in Ireland she would be asked into the house and the bed placed by the hearth, while on Mann and the Hebrides she’d be invited into the barn (on the latter they stopped actually making up a bed for her in the 1800’s, instead shaking sheets and inviting her to make it for herself).
On Imbolc itself a figure of the saint would be paraded through the village and given gifts, something which turned into the tradition of children asking for penny’s for the biddy in Ireland (something I didn’t know until I started to write this post, I’d always thought it was a regional variation of “penny for the guy”). Later in the day the doll would be feasted, providing a pretext for courtship among the young people at an appropriate time of year if they wished to be married at Lughnasadh. In some places this looked very similar to the Sankta Lucia celebrations in Sweden, as the girls would wear white with loose hair while carrying the doll and singing.
One part of Imbolc/St. Brigid’s day that might look familiar is the Saint Brigid’s Cross. While sitting with her dying father, so the story goes, the saint twisted some rushes from the floor into a cross to teach him about Christianity – the conversion was a success and now the crosses are made every year to bring good luck and protection from fire for the household. A possible pre-Christian explanation for them is that they represent the sun, the elements or the four quarters of the year: some of the crosses have three arms instead of four which might support this.
Finally the weather today is supposed to determine whether or not the Winter will end soon. Unfortunately nice weather means its about to get worse again, so maybe it was a mistake to feel smug about how pleasant it was today! We had some truly spectacular clouds over the city though, magically appropriate looking for Imbolc.