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Imbolc

February Eve is the start of the festival of Brigit. Though the spring equinox on March 21st is accepted by most as the first day of Spring, Imbolc or Oimelc is the first day of Spring in the farmer's year, marking the first stirring of seeds in the ground. Farmers test the soil to see if it is thawed enough for the first plowings and snowdrops spring up in the spots where Brighid was been. Oimelc, Imbolc, Imbolg, or Imbulc is derived from oi, "sheep," and melc or melg, "milk,' hence oi-melg, "ewe-milk," for this is the time the sheep's milk comes. Imbolc honors Brigit, the three-fold goddess of fire, poetry, and healing. Unable to destroy the reverence of the Irish for this goddess, the Church was forced to invent a saint, St. Brigit, to steal her fire (forgive the pun). She is the patron saint of cattle and dairy farming. In France, especially Brittany, she became St. Blaize, patron of healers and protector during harsh winters.

Brigantia is the day of Bride or Brigit, the Celtic Goddess in her young woman aspect. Each year, at the first glimmer of dawn, the Cailleach is transformed into the fair young Goddess Bride. She travels throughout the countryside on the Eve of her festival, bestowing her blessings upon humanity. Just as the Cailleach carries a white Druid Wand or slachdan made of birch, willow, bramble or broom, so too does Brigid. This wand controls the weather but whereas the Cailleach's rod brings storms and harsh weather, Brighid's brings warm winds and new life.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this festival is the lighting of candles or torches at midnight, and at her shrine in Kildare, a sacred flame burnt continuously, even after the sit was turned into a nunnery. The flame continued to burn until the thirteenth century when it was extinguished by order of the local Bishop. It is said that the Mother Superior of the nunnery at Kildare hid a coal from the fire in a hollow rosary and it is from this coal that the fire was relit in Kildare and the US in 1996. According to The Book of Dunn Cow, Brighid's sacred number was nineteen, representing the nineteen year cycle of the moon. This is the time it takes from one new moon to the next to coincide with a specific date. In the Celtic Great Year, the new moon must coincide with the Winter Solstice. It was believed that on the twentieth day of each cycle Brighid herself would tend the flame.

Brigid is patroness of cattle and dairy work. Her love of animals is remembered by giving some special, tasty food to the cows and horses. She is also associated with the dandelion which is called the plant of Bride. According to legend, the milky juice of the dandelion is supposed to nurture young lambs in spring. Birds were also one of her animals, and they had great affection for her. In County Armagh, linnets are occasionally referred to as Brigid's Birds, and if the lark sings on Brigid's Day, it is an omen of a good spring. Brighid's sacred bird was the Oystercatcher, giolla Bride (Irish - Brighid's servant) or Brideun (Scots Gaelic - Brighid's bird) which was said to guide people who were under her protection. Like the Groundhog in America, Brigit’s white serpent is said to come up from the mound in which it hibernates, and its behavior determines the length of the remaining period of frost.

There are various ways of indicating that Bigit's visit to the house and farmyard is welcome. A common token is the placing of a cake or pieces of bread and butter on the window-sill outside along with a sheaf of corn as refreshment for her white cow which accompanies her on her rounds. On the Isle of Man, her festival is called La'al Breeshey. A bundle of green rushes is gathered by each family. Standing with them in hand on the threshold of the door, Bridget is invited to come in and lodge with them for the night, saying “Bridget, Bridget, come to my house, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Bridget, and let Bridget come in." (In the Manx language: “Brede, Brede, tar gys my thie tar dyn thie ayms noght. Foshil ee yn dorrys da Brede, as thig do Brede e heet staigh.” Afterward, the rushes are strewn on the floor by a carpet or bed for Bridget.

During her journeys, Brigit will touch the brat (a ribbon, a piece of linen or other cloth, a sash, scarf or handkerchief, or any garment) and endow it with healing powers. This token may be placed on the windowsill during the night, or it might be left on the doorstep, be hung up, or be thrown on a low roof. In Munster, it is often tied to the door latch so that she touches it when entering the house. Once blessed by virtue of her touch, the brat kept its virtue forever, and many believe that the older it is, the more potent it becomes. This charm is kept as a remedy against headache, but it will also keep the wearer safe from harm. Men often put out a belt, a tie or a pair of braces to gain this protection. This token also gives omens for the future. Its length is carefully measured and marked down, and when it is brought in again next morning it is again carefully measured against the marks. If its length increases during the night, this is a sign of long life, plentiful returns from crops and cattle, and freedom from accident, illness and misfortune.

Another feature of Brigid's Eve is the Brideog or Breedhoge in which groups of young people travel from house to house carrying her symbol. They prepare an image of her from corn straw or a butter churn. The foundation of the figure might be a broom or a churn-dash, or some sticks fastened together. The whole corn dolly is padded and dressed, and the head and face might be mask or a piece of white cloth which has been suitably painted or colored or even a carved turnip. The effigy is supposed to come alive with the spirit of Brigit during the night, and offerings of food and drink are left out overnight for her as she journeys through the land, bestowing her blessing on the people and on their livestock. Food collected this way was blessed by Brigit and used in the communal feast. Sometimes the effigy is a well-dressed doll borrowed from a little girl, often re-dressed or decorated for the occasion, or a chosen girl, dressed wholly or partly in white, stood in for the goddess. Going from door to door, they would beg for alms for "poor Biddy." Giving to Brigit was thought to bring good luck (especially with harvest), and the money and food collected went back to the community through the Church or the families of the children. If a doll or effigy was not used, then the most modest and beautiful girl of a particular area was chosen to represent her. She would wear a crown of rushes, Coróin Bhrigid (Brigid's Crown), a shield on her left arm, Sciath Bhrighid (Brigid's Shield), and hold a cross in her right hand (Brigid’s Cross). With a group of young girls, she was go from house to house on Brigid's Eve or Brigid's Morning.

A hoop of staw or rope about eight to ten feet long with four Brigit's crosses tied to it, called the Crios Bride or Brigit's Girdle, was carried from home to home. Men would step through it and women would lower it over their heads and step through it three times for protection from illness, especially 'pains in the bones', in the coming year. In a few places in West County Galway, there are stories of passing cattle through the crios Bride.The most usual type of cross was once the diamond or lozenge of straw, a universal feminine emblem. The next most popular type is made by doubling rushes over each other to form an overlapping-cross or "firewheel." This is the kind found most often these days. A subtype of this, with three legs instead of four, exists in several parts of Northern of Ireland. It is considered the older form and may represent Brigid in her triple goddess form. Brigid's cross it is protective against fire and lightning.

Brigit's crosses are hung from straw in houses and barns to ward off lightning and fire, as well as illness and epidemics. The scrap left from making the crosses was not thrown away. In parts of Donegal, Tyrone, and Antrim, it was neatly arranged on the floor near the hearth, sometimes covered with a white cloth, to form Brigid’s bed for when she visited the house. Women might make a corn dolly from sheaves of corn or oats and place it in the bed to represent Brigit. In the Hebrides, the dolly was placed in a large basket with a wooden club by it. The lady and servants would cry out three times, "Briid is come, Briid is welcome" just before going to bed. In the morning, they looked among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid's club there. If they do, they augur a good crop and prosperous year. The straw from the bed was believed to have curative powers, and strands were preserved and tied about an aching head or a sore limb at night. In some houses, rushlights were made from the residue and lit in her honor. Others put a wisp under the mattress or pillow to ward off disease. In parts of Donegal, the fishermen wore a little ribbon from the residual rushes or straw and carried it when at sea for protection.

A white cloth left out over night to collect dew is called Brighid's Cloak. The dew is thought to have healing properties. Another tradition of Brigid’s Day tells that hoar-frost, gathered from the grass in the morning is an infallible cure for headache. Many people brought water from a sacred well and sprinkled it on the house and its occupants, the farm buildings, livestock and fields, to invoke her blessing. This was also a time for augury, especially by fire.

Colors: White, elemental colors- red, blue, and green, the gold and yellow of flame are also appropriate.

Decorations: bundle three ears of corn or grain to symbolize the triple Goddess and hang on the door, candles, Sun wheels/Brigid's Crosses, Corn dollies, ribbons and swags of fabric.

Foods: Anything round like cakes and golden such as pancakes and crepes, whole grains, milk and other dairy items. Other options are spicy foods-to bring some warmth into this cold February day. Seeds represent growth. Fion Sméar, Blackberry Wine, is drunk to Brigid's health and to promote fertility. Sowans ("fermented" oat porridge), apple-cake, fruitcakes, dumplings and colcannon are favorite foods of the holiday. Every farmer's wife in Ireland makes a cake called Bairin-breac. Neighbors are invited, and the evening concludes with mirth and festivity. Butter always forms part of the meal and fresh butter is usually churned on the same day. The more prosperous farmers gives presents of butter and buttermilk to poor neighbors.

Activities: Make candles, sing, making a Brighid's Cross, corn dollies and Brighid beds, burn the greenery from Yule to banish Winter and usher in Spring, leave an offering of milk, some buttered bread or some cake for the fairies and/or Brighid. This is a great time to begin Spring-cleaning and purify your home. Cleaning the hearth and laying a fresh fire is also done at this time. Clean and consecrate your magickal tools and work areas as well as your home. Imbolc/Candlemas is also a day for women to spend time together. Mothers plan a day of activities with your daughters.