The Ancient Celtic festival of Imbolg („Imbolc“ in English) is celebrated on February 1st. In more modern times, this festival coincides with „Lá Fhéile Bhríde“ or Saint Brigid’s Day, the feast day for the female patron saint of Ireland.
Traditionally, this festival marks the beginning of spring and is viewed as a time of renewal and growth. It is one of the four major Celtic festivals alongside Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain (see „Irish Links to Halloween„).
As Ireland welcomes a new public holiday in 2023 to coincide with and celebrate St Brigid’s Day, we thought we’d take a look at St. Brigid, Imbolc and the Celtic Goddess, Brigid.
Imbolc – the Celtic Festival of Spring
The festival of Imbolc, celebrated on February 1st, is one that holds a deep significance in Celtic mythology and tradition. Imbolc marks the beginning of spring and the end of the dark half of the year. Of course, this beginning of spring is different to the astronomical and meteorological seasons that have spring begin on the 21st and 1st of March, respectively.
February 1st is considered the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. As many people in Ireland still follow the Gaelic calendar, February 1st is seen as the beginning of spring.
Traditionally, Imbolc was a time of purification and renewal, a time to cleanse the home and prepare for the new season. Maybe here we get the beginnings of the idea of „spring cleaning“, although the Roman festival of Lupercalia (celebrated on February 15th) was also connected with the concept of purification.
Imbolc was also a time of lambing and the return of life following the long winter. In fact, some believe the Gaelic name of the festival, „Imbolg“, is a reference to pregnancy („i mbolg“ in modern Irish means „in the belly“).
To accurately state how the Celts celebrated Imbolc is a difficult task as the sources often come from after the time. We can say that it was one of the four principal festivals with Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. The „Tochmarc Emire„, a series of stories from the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology – including one of the most well-known stories of Irish mythology, „An Táin Bó Cualigne“ – states that Imbolc was „the time in which the sheep come out and (were) milked„.
The „Hibernica Minora“ includes an Old Irish poem about the four seasonal festivals. About Imbolc, it says, „Tasting every food in order, this is what behaves at Imbolc: washing of hands and foot and head“ – („Fromad each bid iar n-urd , issed dlegair i n-Imbulc , dfunnach laime is coissi is cinn, is amlaid sin atberim“).
Of course, Imbolc was also seen as a time to honour the goddess Brigid and ask for her blessings for the coming year.
Brigid – the Celtic Goddess
Brigid was the Celtic goddess of poetry, healing, smithcraft and the hearth. She was also considered a goddess of nature and was closely associated with the cycles of the earth and the natural world. Therefore, she played a significant role in the spiritual life of the Ancient Celts.
Brigid brought spring and the time for new growth. She was also associated with the element of fire, and her sacred wells, springs, and other water sources were considered to have healing powers. All this considered, Brigid was an influential figure in Celtic mythology.
As a goddess of the hearth, she is associated with the home and domesticity and is often depicted as a nurturing mother figure. Brigid is also associated with the sacred flame and is often depicted holding a torch or a flame. She is also associated with wisdom, inspiration, and divination. Brigid is often considered the patroness of poets, healers, and smiths.
Considering the sheer amount of different roles associated with Brigid, she is often considered a triple goddess (a deity with three apparent forms that function as a singular whole), representing the maiden, mother, and crone aspects of the female divine.
It may also be that there were three sisters, all named Brigid, who were three separate goddesses but linked – one was for the poets, the other was the smith, and the third sister was the healer.
Saint Brigid of Kildare
Saint Brigid of Kildare is a 5th-century saint who is one of the three national saints of Ireland, along with Patrick and Columba. She was an abbess who founded several convents of nuns, most notably that of Kildare. Her feast day is February 1st, and she shares several characteristics with the goddess Brigid.
It should be noted that the historical evidence of her existence is limited, and most of what is known about her come from sources written centuries after her death. Therefore, it can be difficult to say for certain whether the early Christians adopted the Celtic goddess as a saint to help them spread the new religion or if the activities of a real person were given the attributes of the goddess for a similar purpose… Saint Brigid is considered a patroness for poetry, learning, healing, protection, blacksmithing, livestock and dairy production.
Given her importance in Irish culture, many legends and stories are associated with Saint Brigid, and they include the following list. However, it should be noted that such stories and legends should be considered symbolic rather than historical fact, as Ireland was still an oral society at this stage…
- The miracle of the holy well: It is said that Saint Brigid struck her staff into the ground, and a well of healing water sprang up. St. Brigid’s Well in Clare is still visited by people today who believe in its healing powers.
- The cloak of Saint Brigid: It is said that Saint Brigid once gave her cloak to a beggar, and when she went back to retrieve it, it had miraculously multiplied to provide clothing for many people. There is another story about her cloak where she asked the King of Leinster for as much land as her cloak would cover. After the king agreed to this, she laid her small cloak on the ground and asked her four helpers each to take a corner of the cloak and walk in opposite directions – north, south, east and west. The cloak then began to grow and grow, and it spread across many acres. She used this land to build her well-known monastery.
- The cow of plenty: Saint Brigid is often depicted with a cow, symbolizing her association with fertility and abundance. According to one legend, she once gave her last remaining cow to a poor family, and the cow then provided an endless supply of milk.
- The miracle of the bread: One day, when Saint Brigid and her companions were out of food, she prayed for food to feed them, and a white deer appeared with a loaf of bread on its back.
Such legends truly demonstrate her connection with the land, similar to the goddess Brigid.
A Saint Brigid’s Cross is one symbol that symbolises her importance in Irish culture. Such crosses are traditionally made with rushes or reeds as they symbolise the connection between Saint Brigid and the natural world. Traditionally, they are hung over doors and windows for protection against fire, lightning, illness and evil spirits.
Celebrating St. Brigid’s Day
As it is now a national holiday in Ireland, there are plenty of ways for those in Ireland to celebrate, including by going to a St. Brigid’s Day mass or by making a St. Brigid’s Cross. The Brigid’s Cross has become one of the primary means to celebrate the saint, especially by children in Irish primary schools.
You can also enjoy a day off in your own way, especially if it is a three-day weekend… However, other ways to celebrate St. Brigid’s Day include:
- Learning about St. Brigid and her life,
- Visit a holy well,
- Lighting a candle for St. Brigid.
The Cologne Celtics do not recommend any of these activities above any others… taking out your hurley and going for a puckaround with your friends is also recommendable, and not just on St. Brigid’s Day!
Celebrating Imbolc Today
Many people continue to celebrate Imbolc and St. Brigid’s Day today. Neo-pagan groups exist today, but those who wish to engage in such practices may choose to observe the festival as a way to connect with nature, tradition, or spirituality. It can be used as a means to connect with Celtic ancestors or for those with an interest in Celtic culture.
Regarding St. Brigid, many people make Brigid’s Crosses and light candles, but other methods can be considered. A Brigid’s cross is said to bring protection and blessings to the household.
A nature walk and observing early signs of the coming spring may be used as a way to connect with nature. Cleaning the house or engaging in other purification rituals can symbolise the renewal of the season and the coming of the lighter time of year.
Candlemaking and subsequently using them as part of Imbolc-related rituals are other means to celebrate. Creating a candle can be associated with Brigid in her role as goddess of the hearth and symbolizes the return of light to the world following the dark winter months.
Having a feast with traditional foods such as dairy, lamb, and bread is another way to observe Imbolc. During this time, more devout onlookers can make offerings to Brigid in the form of honey, milk or other foods.
Of course, as Brigid is a goddess with so many aspects to her character, you can also celebrate her by reading or creating poetry or other prose. As she is a goddess associated with inspiration, adding your own means of celebration would likely be the most appropriate way to honour her.
At the Cologne Celtics Gaelic Sports Club, we are committed to promoting the Irish sports of hurling/camogie and Gaelic football. However, we also provide other ways to connect with Ireland, including regular Irish music sessions and Irish language activities. If you are in the Rheinland in Germany and have an interest in Ireland, Irish sport and Irish culture, please do not hesitate to get in contact with the Celts. We look forward to hearing from you.
Top image: The Cathedral Church of St. Brigid, Kildare, photo by JohnArmagh