The precursor of the end of Winter, the Imbolc is a pagan festivity that marks a seasonal change, with the first signs of spring and the first sprouting of leaves. Here Barbara Meiklejohn-Free explains the traditions behind Imbolc and the different ways Imbolc is celebrated around the world.
February 2nd is the cross-quarter day that falls between Midwinter (Yule), and the Vernal Equinox of Spring, called Imbolc (pronounced Em-olk). It was claimed as ‘Candlemas’ by the Catholic Church, marking the start of banishing Winter. The ‘greens’ that adorned the house throughout the Yule season were gathered and burned to give off a bright fire to break the hold of the cold of Winter, heralding the snowdrop and other spring flowers. Imbolc actually begins at sunset on February 1st and continues till sunset on February 2nd in keeping with the Celtic tradition of beginning the day at the time of dark.
Creation started in the dark and then there was light. In the Roman Catholic tradition, people brought candles to the church to be blessed by the priest on this day. In Armenia, fires were built out in the open and people danced around and jumped over the flames as a form of purification. Women wore no underclothing when jumping so that their reproductive organs could be especially cleansed. A special lantern was then lit from the embers of the bonfire which burned in their temple throughout the year. After Christianization the fires were moved into the church courtyard and embers were carried home to light their own fires from the sacred flames. People jumped the fire as an act of purification in Celtic lands too, often building two fires and herded their live-stock between them to bless and purify animals.
In Europe fields were purified and offerings were made to the Grain Goddesses. This is a very significant moment in the life of a society that depends on the Earth for sustenance. Waverly Fitzgerald in Celebrating the Seasonal Holy-Days, recounts this medieval Anglo-Saxon plowing charm. As the fanner cut the first furrow, he would say, ‘Whole be thou Earth, Mother of men. In the lap of God, Be thou as-growing. Be filled with fodder, For fare-need of men.’ The farmer then took a loaf of bread, kneaded it with milk and holy water and laid it under the first furrow saying, ‘Acre full fed, Bring forth fodder for men! Blossoming brightly, Blessed become; And the God who wrought the ground, Grant us the gifts of growing, That the corn, all the corn, May come unto our need.’
In Ireland, February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian Saint. She was a fire and fertility Goddess and at her oak grove at Kildare an eternal flame burned until the 16th Century. Nine Virgins had tended this sacred flame since the beginning of remembered time. People still put a loaf of bread on the windowsill for her and an ear of corn for her white cow, which was her totem animal.
Wheat stalks are woven into a special cross shape like a Huichol Eye of God, that serve as charms of protection from fire and lightning. In the Scottish Highlands, women took the dried leaves from the last sheaf of corn harvested at Lammas (Autumn Equinox), made them into a corn doll and dressed it in white and then placed it in a basket decorated with ribbons and dried flowers (‘Bride’s bed’). A be-ribboned wand, tipped with an acorn, a candle or other phallic object is laid across her. Candles were lit on either side of the basket, and a soft song chanted. There ‘Bride’ laid until first planting, then was taken with the seeds of first planting and paraded through the field held high on a wooden staff.
Celtic women still use this time of the year for ‘spring cleaning’, as it has always been tradition to extinguish the home’s main fire and thoroughly clean out the hearth. Kindling and logs for a new fire were set and then ignited when people returned home with an ember or coal from the community bonfire. In older times all the people of the community would light their candle from the central candle at the Candlemas Service and bring that taper home to light their house blessing candle.
The house blessing candle was a large candle that was burned throughout the year to provide blessing and protection for the home. Candles are obviously used for celebration at this time and some remember Brigid’s sacred eternal flame by lighting a candle to burn throughout a full day of dark and light. All grain foods are traditional to this holiday especially pancakes and cakes, their golden colour and circular shape symbolising the sun. Sweeping the floors was an act of banishing the gloom of Winter. Since Imbolc is a natural time of renewal, this is a good day to ritually celebrate things new and since purification is also an element, this is a good time to spring clean and smudge your home.
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