Your 5 Point Plan For Celebrating Imbolc
Well, you may or may not be familiar with Imbolc but in Ireland we’ve been celebrating it for centuries (whether we knew it or not!).
Imbolc is the customary first day of spring, when the blackthorn bushes come into flower and the ewes start lambing. Its date used to be flexible but traditionally it is now celebrated on February 1st, but technically it lasts from sunset on January 31st to sunset on February 1st.
Many of us celebrate this Celtic festival without even knowing it. How is that you ask? Well with the Christianisation of Ireland Imbolc became St. Brigit’s day. On February 1st in every primary school in Ireland children are taught about St. Brigit, her miracles, and how to make St. Brigit’s Crosses.
It’s very common for Christian festivals to land on or around the feast days of older festivals and to emulate their traditions. So here is your five point plan for following the traditions of the festival Imbolc, some of which may be very familiar and some of which may seem quite bizarre indeed!
1 - Set Fires
Not just any fires though, remember arson is, in fact, a crime in most places! If in doubt, stick to a candle. Imbolc hasn’t just become the feast day of St. Brigit, but is also the eve of the Christian festival Candlemas, where candles are lit in honour of Jesus’ mother Mary. On Candlemas candles are brought to the church, blessed, and then used to represent Jesus as “The light of the world” for the rest of the year. Similarly the bonfires and candles of Imbolc are used to usher in the return of the sun and longer days, bringing a bright spring to everyone. Bonfires are used on most Celtic feast days so you can’t go too wrong with a good robust blaze! It also won’t do any harm against the cold, it is still February after all.
2 - Break out the duster
Yes I know we all hate doing it, but a good spring clean is an essential part of preparations for Imbolc. Back when winter largely meant staying indoors away from the cold and trying not to die, Imbolc would mean the first days when you could safely kick everyone outdoors and clean the house properly. Nowadays this has morphed into Neo-pagan rituals of cleansing and purification, but it’s also a good chance to clear out any of that left-over Christmas mess (you know who you are! Step away from the tinsel and put the fairy lights in the attic. Its February). There also tends to be, as any Irish mammy will tell you, “good drying out,” so its a good chance to wash the curtains and duvets and cushions and couch covers that, lets face it, need a good scrub every now and again!
3 - Get Crafty
This is a fun one for a group of friends or with kids. There are two little crafty rituals involving Imbolc, and particularly Saint/Goddess Brigit. A St. Brigit’s cross is probably the most well known one. Said to protect the home from fire if placed above your door (but still best to place your Imbolc bonfire well away from your house!), these are easy and fun to make and pre-date St. Brigit to back when she was the Goddess Brigit. It’s unclear exactly what they originally stood for but they are still found in many homes and classrooms around Ireland. You can make them from the traditional rushes, or from paper drinking straws if you can’t find any. You can also try your hand at crafting a Brídeóg, or a Biddy, a little St Brigit doll made of rags or rushes. Biddy is a nickname for Brigit in Ireland, much like Billy is for William elsewhere. You can get really creative with this one, but try using materials from around the house and garden like old cloth, rushes, flowers etc. These little dolls are used in lots of different rituals at Imbolc for Brigit, especially in Killorglin County Kerry, where every year they hold a “Biddy’s Day Festival” where the dolls are brought from place to place, they hold a parade for the Biddys, and the king of the Biddys is crowned.
4 - Predict the Future
Well, just the future of the weather for the coming weeks, though that in itself is a minor miracle in Ireland. Imbolc is the time when the Cailleach comes out. Now in Irish primary school we learn about the Cailleach as being a witch but she is so much more than that! She is a weather deity that takes the form of an old hag and rules the winter months, so she decides how long winter should be. If she decides on a nice long cold miserable winter she will come out at Imbolc and gather more firewood to tide her over until March 25th, Lá na Cailleach (Day of the Cailleach). Naturally enough she’ll want some pleasant weather in which to do this. Therefore; a dry bright Imbolc means a longer colder winter, a rainy bleak Imbolc means the Cailleach has decided to end the winter early and spring will start showing itself soon.
5 - Visit 200+ Dead People
The Mound of The Hostages is one of the few still-visible monuments at the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of the High King of Ireland. Located in County Meath, it is a Neolithic passage tomb, much like the more famous Newgrange, that contains the remains of over 200 Bronze Age people, though some archaeologists estimate as many as 500. Like many other passage tombs, the light only shines down the narrow tunnel twice a year and one of those times is, you guessed it, Imbolc! It really is a fascinating monument to visit and, unlike Newgrange, you won’t have to win a lottery to watch the sun shine down the passage. Though it is smaller, it actually surpassed Newgrange in the amount and quality of grave goods found. Plus, while you’re at the Hill of Tara you can check out some of the other monuments around as well!
Now that you’re all ready to celebrate Imbolc properly you know what to do. Its time to put away the cleaning supplies, plan a trip to Tara, grab a beer (Brigit is the patron saint of brewing after all!), light that bonfire, and put your feet up, safe in the knowlege that that cross you made earlier is keeping your house safe from the flames.
Imbolc shona daoibh go léir! Happy Imbolc to you all!