Saturday, January 29, 2011
Imbolc (also Imbolg or Oimelc), or St Brigid’s Day (Scots Gaelic Là Fhèill Brìghde, Irish Lá Fhéile Bríde, the feast day of St. Brigid), is an Irish festival marking the beginning of spring. It was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid, who was later Christianised as St. Brigid.
Most commonly it is celebrated on February 1 or 2 (or February 12, according to the Old Calendar), which falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere.
Imbolc is the festival of the lactating sheep. It is derived from the Gaelic word "oimelc" which means "ewes milk". Herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders. It is the time of Blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. It marks the center point of the dark half of the year. It is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal and in many places the first Crocus flowers begin to spring forth from the frozen earth.
The Maiden is honored as the Bride on this Sabbat. Straw corn dollies are created from oat or wheat straw and placed in baskets with white flower bedding. Young girls then carry them door to door, and gifts are bestowed upon the image from each household. Afterwards at the traditional feast, the older women make special acorn wands for the dollies to hold. Brighid's Crosses are fashioned from wheat stalks and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year. Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and a besom(broom) is place by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new. Candles are lit and placed in each room of the house to honor the re-birth of the Sun.
Another traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plough. In some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden ploughed up. In other areas, the plough is decorated and then Whiskey, the "water of life" is poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plough and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time
The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods (butter, milk, and bannock, for example), divination or watching for omens, and candles or a bonfire if the weather permits. Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather predicting and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens is a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day.
Imbolc is the day the Cailleach — the hag of Gaelic tradition — gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people are generally relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.
Fire and purification are an important aspect of this festival. Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bríde, Brigit, Brìd) is the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
Brigid is said to walk the earth on Imbolc eve. Before going to bed, each member of the household may leave a piece of clothing or strip of cloth outside for Brigid to bless. The head of the household will smother (or "smoor") the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they look for some kind of mark on the ashes, a sign that Brigid has passed that way in the night or morning. The clothes or strips of cloth are brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection
Brigit's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their special holiday. The Roman Church was quick to confiscate this symbolism as well, using 'Candlemas' as the day to bless all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year. (Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St. Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.)
Symbolism: purity, growth and renewal, the reunion of the Goddess and the God, fertility, dispensing of the old and making way for the new.
Foods: dairy products, curries, onions, chives, seeds, herbal tea, mutton or lamb, poppyseed cakes, muffins, scones, and breads, onions, garlic, raisins, spiced wines.
Herbs: angelica, basil, bay laurel, blackberry, celandine, coltsfoot, heather, iris, myrrh, tansy, violets, and all white or yellow flowers.
Incense and oils: angelica, blackberry, iris, myrrh, vanilla.
Colors: white, yellow, light green.
Stones: amethyst, bloodstone, garnet, ruby, onyx, turquoise.
Animals: robins, burrowing animals, sheep, lambs, deer
Decorations: candles, lamps, brooms, yellow flowers, Brighid's Crosses, priapic wands (acorn-tipped), evergreens.
Traditional activities: a besom is placed by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new, candle lighting, searching for signs of spring, making Bride's Beds, making priapic wands, feasting, spring cleaning.
Spell/ritual work: blessing of seeds for this year's garden, fertility and purification, consecration of agricultural tools, initiation, transformation, beginnings.
Explore some of the ways you can add folk practices into your Imbolc celebration.
Imbolc is a festival of purification and a celebration of the first signs of spring. It is the time when the milk begins to engorge the udders of the livestock in preparation for the first births of spring. It is an important date in the beginning of the agricultural year. Preparations for spring sowing, hiring of farm workers for the coming season, fishermen taking out their boats after staying in for the winter season, seaweed gathering on the coast to be used for fertilizer, and the gathering of shellfish all begin at that this time. The larder of the housewife and the hay stores of the farmer were also checked to make sure that only half had been consumed.
Most of the elements of the traditional celebration can be seen, as referring to sexual intercourse and fertility: the men, having the charge of making the "little Brid doll" often from the phallic dasher of a churn; the women preparing the "bed" for the don; the churning of butter; the emphasis on birth and milking; and the use of straw, which was the traditional material for the birthing bed for human and beast alike, etc.
In folk practice, it appears mostly as a holiday centered on the household, but it can easily be turned into a community celebration as well. Below are some customs that have long been associated with this sacred holiday. Feel free to modify them to match your needs and the particulars of your family and community.
This is the time to give your home a good thorough cleaning in preparation for a visit from Brigit. If you happen to have a fireplace, it especially should be cleaned very well. As a part of the magical purification of the house a birch branch should be used to symbolically sweep the floors. Birch has strong associations with Brigit, and has long been used for rites of purification and new beginnings.
All of this work should be completed prior to the eve of Imbolc, when a small dish of butter should be placed on a windowsill and a fresh fire kindled in the hearth or a candle lit in honor of Brigit.
Making the Brideog
If possible (and applicable) this work should be done by the man of the household or a group of men in your grove. Long pieces of straw or rushes should be gathered and fashioned into the shape of a doll. The image should be dressed in white doll clothing or merely wrapped in a white cloth in the manner of a dress. Her image should be decorated with bits of greenery, early flowers, shells and pretty stones. An especially pretty shell should be placed over her heart. For the greatest magical effect, the doll can be built around the handle of an old butter chum dasher. When finished, she should be consecrated with a few sprinkles of sacred water while invocations to Brigit are spoken. The resulting effigy is called a Brideog (BREE-JOG), or "little Brid" and is an important component of the traditional Imbolc celebration.
This is the most widely practiced custom associated with Imbolc. Following the making of the Brideog, the extra straw should be gathered up and saved, for use at the family or grove feast on the eve of Imbolc. For the best results, the straw should be soaked in water for a couple of days prior to the feast. Pan of that evening should be devoted to making Brigit's Crosses. These are weavings of straw that can be as simple as a few strands or amazingly elaborate. Most folks are familiar with the three or four-armed variety but there is a great number of different regional patterns including what most people in America know as a "God's Eye" pattern woven around two sticks. At the end of the evening each person should take their cross home, sprinkle it with a bit of sacred water and speak a request of Brigit for blessing and protection of the home and family members. Old crosses from previous years should be moved to the rafters or attic of your home, and the new crosses hung in their place near the entryways to the dwelling. Crosses that were woven by the children should be hung on the wall over their beds, and if you happen to have a barn or out-building you should hang one there as well. They are especially effective in protecting the household and its inhabitants from fire and lightening.
Throughout the year, the crosses may be taken down temporarily when a Brigit blessing is needed: the a healing of a sick child; tucking between the mattresses to assist in conception; placed upon a basket of seed being carried out to the garden for planting, etc.
The eve of Imbolc is the best time of the year to perform divinations specifically pertaining to the future welfare and prosperity of your family.
On the eve of Imbolc, a family or community feast should be held. When all is prepared, and the table is set, the persons who were involved in the making of the Brideog should go outside and retrieve her. The doll should be placed on the outside of the building next to the open door. The men should get on their knees before the doll (the traditional gesture of respect for the Brideog) and shout into the house, "Go on your knees, open your eyes, and admit Brigit!" The celebrants inside should answer, "Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to the holy woman!" The Brideog should then be carried into the house and leaned against a leg of the feasting table. Begin the feast with a prayer of thanks.
As the evening of the Imbolc feast winds down, the women of the household or grove should gather up the last of the straw and fashion an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle called "leaba Brid" (LAWA BREE) or "the bed of Brid". Place the bed near the hearth If you have one. Then place the Brideog into the bed and place a small straight wand of birch with the bark peeled in the bed beside the figure. This wand is called "slatag Brid" (SLAH-TAHG BREE) or "'the little wand of Brid. If you have burned a fire during the evening the ashes of the fire should be scraped smooth. In the morning check the ashes for marks of Brigit's wand or better yet, her footprint to prove that she had visited during the night. If no marks are found, burn some incense in the hearth or near the spot where the bed was placed, as an offering.
This is a special type of procession similar to caroling that members of your grove can do on the eve of Imbolc (or one of the preceding nights if necessary). Arrangements should be made ahead of time so that people can sign up for a visit and know what to expect. They should also be advised that it is best to do the spring cleaning before the Brideog visits. Assemble a company of participants, called "Biddy's" or Brideogs and prepare the songs for the event. Take the Brideogs from house to house to offer blessings and entertainment to the families who live mere. Dressing in unusual clothes and wearing funny hats will add to the fun of the event and, is quite traditional. A young lady, traditionally the prettiest of the crowd, should be selected to carry the Brigit doll.
When you arrive, ask for admittance to the house (it is considered very bad luck to be uncivil to a Brideog) and everyone should file in. Entertain the household with a couple of songs (traditionally song, rhymes and music on flute, violin, and later, accordion were used) and recite a prepared Brigit blessing for them. If the household does not already have one, they should be presented with a Brigit's cross for protection and blessings through the year. Before going, the family should present the Brideogs with an item of food, especially one associated with dairy, to be used at the community feast (or as an alternative you can collect non-perishable food items for a homeless shelter).
Blessing of the Brat Brid
During the day before Imbolc, the woman of the house or women of the grove should take a small piece of cloth (larger if it is for the entire grove) and lay it on a bush outside. During the night, as the goddess roams to bless the houses of her followers, she will pass by, touching and blessing the cloth. Collect the cloth in the morning and tear it into small pieces. These pieces of doth, individually called a Brat Brid (BRAHT BREE]), should be distributed among the children and females of the household. The Brat Brid will give them protection throughout the year where ever they go. These pieces of cloth may be sewn into the clothes or jackets of the children to insure that it won't be lost.
Blessing the Bratach Brid
The Bratach Bree (BRAH-TOCK BREE) is a large piece of cloth, such as a shawl that Brigit will bless in the same fashion as the Brat Brid. Instead of being torn into pieces on the next day this cloth should be kept as a sacred relic and charged repeatedly year after year. The Bratach Brid can become quite powerful over time and can be used to help insure safe childbirth and to cure sterility by placing it over the patient and asking for Brigit's help. It was once fairly standard equipment for country midwives in Ireland. In addition to being used for human mothers during childbirth it was also spread across the back of birthing cows to ensure the health of the calves and an abundant supply of milk.
Carmichael. Alexander, Carmina Gadelica Hymns & Incantations, ed. C. J. Moore, Edinburgh; Books. 1992
Danaher, Kevin, The Year In Ireland, Irish Calendar Customs, Minneapolis: Mercier Press, 1972
O Cathainn, Seamas, The Festival of Brigit, Celtic Goddess & Holy Woman, Dublin: DBA Publications Ltd., 1995
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage, Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, London: Thames and Hudson, 1961