Imbolc, pronounced EM-bolgk, is an ancient Irish festival marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man on February 1st and 2nd, or when the ewes were lambing. It is one of the four Gaelic festivals: Samhain in autumn, Imbolc in winter, Beltaine in spring, and Lughnasadh in summer. An inner chamber in the neolithic Irish monument Mounds of Hostages is aligned with the rising sun on Imbolc and Samhain, pointing to the importance of this date since ancient times.
In Ireland, St. Brigid’s Day coincides with Imbolc. St. Brigid is one of Ireland’s most beloved figures, and is linked in Irish folklore with the goddess Brigid, whose festival, in pagan times, was also on Imbolc. St. Brigid is said to visit all the homes in the village and bring them her blessing of fertility, healing, and peace. Various folk traditions invite Brigid into the home and into a special bed by the hearth made of rushes and reeds. On Imbolc, little girls carry a homemade St. Brigid doll, called a Brídeóg, from house to house and are given tokens and charms with which to decorate the doll. They may also be given food to carry on to the St. Brigid’s Feast.
Brigid arrives with a promise of light, warmth, fertility, and growth, and heralds the departure of the Cailleach, the storm hag of winter. Many Imbolc traditions blend the elemental powers of water and fire. Brigid was the patron of smithing and poetry (both associated with the generative powers of fire) and with healing and holy wells (both connected to the sacred properties inherent in water).
I have always felt the cold of winter most intensely in February. February typically has the coldest days of the year in many regions of the United States. It may also seem colder because we have spent so long in winter. We are worn down and missing the sun. Imbolc, halfway between the start of winter and the start of spring, is a much-needed celebration of the returning sun. After the celebration of Imbolc, we will be closer to the spring equinox than to the winter solstice.
Just as I was finishing this issue of Hag Stone Journal, I found this lovely video on the folklore and traditions of St. Brigid’s Day. I really recommend viewing it to learn more about Irish customs on Imbolc and to see some very charming historic photographs.