Imbolg, (Lá Fheile Bríd)

The Celtic rite of springtime



The Celtic feast day, Imbolg, also known as Imbolc, or Lá Fheile Bríd, is the fire festival of springtime, a feast celebrating the end of the winter months, and to encourage the fertility, prosperity and security of the milder springtime.  From Neolithic man to post-Christian Celt this date has been marked in one form or another for over five thousand years. 


The actual day on which the feast of Brigit, be it Goddess or Saint you honour, varies from the 31st of January to the 4th of February.  Those Romano Celtic nations such as Bretons, Gauls and Britons tended to celebrate this festival according to the Spring equinoxal dates, which makes this years Imbolc February 3rd; Celtic Ireland however has a long tradition of marking the date itself, with Brigit’s eve falling on January 31st and Brigit’s Day on February 1st. The difference in attitude between pagan Celt and Roman toward astrology accounts for this difference in tradition.  Whatever the day one chooses to mark, however, the feat of Brigit is celebrated with a common cause.  Even the Saint, Brigit, has the same characteristics and attributes as her predecessor goddess, (the early Celtic church having deliberately endowed her with them to replace the almost indefatigable worship of Brigit Goddess!) 


So what is this festival about? As an Equinoxal date it marks the beginning of the end of winter, a fact of immense significance to Neolithic man who would have gathered at the site of Boann, in Newgrange or a similar site, to light the bonfires with which every feast of moment in the Irish calendar is celebrated.  Now those who had survived the harshest part of winter could relax a little – they were likely now to see the summer and plenty.  Livestock would begin to reproduce, and again if they had survived this far, they would probably make it through to summer also.  It was time to start considering repairs to the homesteads, look forward to the hunting and fishing activities of spring/summer, consider pairing off and marrying the tribes young, look forward to the birth of children conceived during the long winter.


Later on, in the Iron Age, as a Celtic Festival we know it was predominantly occupied with issues of Fertility, Love, Marriage, Purity, Cleansing and Healing.  Surviving folk-customs underpin that this time of year was one for lovers, for arranging marriages, for

Rites of healing, for purifying with water and fire.  The “St. Valentine Day” rituals were originally part of the Brigit Celebrations.  Brigit was the patron of crafts, spinning, weaving, sewing, baking, grinding, mills, health, livestock, the Hearth, cooking.  As art of her “healing” role there are sacred wells and springs all over Ireland and Britain, dedicated to the healing powers of Brigit.  She is also associated with fire rituals: the bonfires lit on Brigit’s eve, plus the tradition of purifying livestock, woman and new born children by passing a burning rush brand over, under and around them.  Grown-ups leapt the bonfire for the same reason. Fire was brought around the house, and water from a sacred well sprinkled around the house, after it has been thoroughly cleaned.  Girdles of rushes, known as Bríd’s Girdle were made, for people and livestock, through which they were passed three times in order to protect against illness.


Spring Cleaning was a product of these ancient customs.  The house had to be cleaned from top to bottom, and aired, a sensible custom when communal living at close quarters during the winter was the norm; indeed the idea of spring-cleaning probably did help protect against and get rid of, all manner of germs! Psychologically it symbolized a fresh new season, time to get out and about, move around the countryside again, give and receive visits.


 Once the house, and livestock quarters, were clean, they were cleansed with fire and water, on Brigit’s eve, the men outside with the animals, and the women inside with the children; the women in particular had a sacred duty to “call” Brigit into the house, to make her welcome at the hearth, to please her with evidence of the industry and productivity of the house and farm (in samples of sewing, weaving, spinning, honey, flour, baked goods, preserves etc) and to secure her good will for the year ahead, and for the planting season. 


This rite survived up to the late 20th century in some parts of Ireland -although Brigit the Goddess had long been replaced by the Saint. Still is essence the rite remained much as it had ever been, the youngest or most fertile woman calling out into the Dawn of Brigit’s day, invoking the name of Ireland’s most beloved Goddess/Saint, inviting her into the home, and into the lives of her people, dedicating their hopes and dreams to her for another year, the very prosperity and survival of the tribe at her mercy. The utilized Her power to cleanse, to heal, and to purify; in many ways Brigit personified the hope that spring brought.


And if spring brought hope it also brought other emotions…the sap was rising, not just in the trees, and a young Celts’ thoughts were turned inexorably towards love.  If you harbored any hopes of getting a wife this year it was time to pull out all the stops!  Brigit’s day marked the period when marriages would be arranged, and lovers would court – not least because one could at last move around the area and visit! In more modern times no marriages could be celebrated during lent so one had from Feb 1st to Shrove Tuesday to get hitched!  And if one didn’t then the locals made the unfortunate singles a target of abuse and derision for the Lenten period, claiming to have been “cheated” out of a wedding feast.


All the remaining customs reinforce the idea that Brigit’s day was the beginning of the courting season; it also was the time to hitch together those who had been busy during the winter!  Pre-Christian Celts would have been delighted to enter the spring with their numbers increased and the signs of fertility and new life would be taken as a great omen…Christian Celts would have been less delighted but just as anxious for a wedding to take place, in order to spare the bride’s blushes!!


In either or any case weddings taking place around or as part of the Brigit celebrations were considered extremely well favoured; the lucky couple would never now want, harm, illness or lack of land.  Their families wouldn’t feud and they would be especially blessed by Brigit; who, if invited to the wedding feast, would never leave their Hearth! She would take care of the children, and not allow the livestock to be ill, or purloined by neighbours; she would especially protect them from fire (a very important blessing even 100 years ago)


To bring this good luck into one’s life and marriage there were several customs to be observed. One was the custom of Bríd’s Ribbon.  A red ribbon was thread out the window of the lovers’ house, wound around the handle on the inside and allowed to flutter outside; similarly it might be tied to the outside frame somehow, or staked to the ground outside.  The Bríd Cross or Doilly must be brought into the house and hung over the fire/cooker.  In modern times we usually use only the cross, but up until the early 20th century rushes were woven into lozenge shapes and triangles within ovals, both symbols of the Sun and the all-seeing eye, extremely ancient. A rush “Doll” or “baby” could be made and this was used in the same way as the “cross”.  The cross of course is actually the swastika or triscele, the symbol of eternal love and peace. (NB not to be confused with the Nazi mis-use of the swastika!)


Any undertaking that was linked to Brigit’s day was sure to go well; kind-hearted and indulgent, generous to a fault, the slightest remembrance of Her on Her day was said to guarantee her good wishes.  She would infuse all such enterprises with luck, vitality, passion, growth and prosperity; she would guarantee fertility and health. Children born at this period would be creative and artistic, usually great craftsmen and women.  One thing only she forbade, the turning of wheels on her day, i.e. no spinning or weaving, and this custom was observed in many parishes well into the late 20th century, with even cycling being frowned upon!  As on any great Celtic feast, one should arrange no sordid business!! No buying or selling in the common run f business, lest you give away your prosperity.  For the same reason, one should not borrow or lend.  However the best way to spend the day, the most auspicious way, is in feasting and merrymaking – and the Celts rarely needed much of an excuse to do that!




Commissioned for The Mysteries teaching website, January 5th 2002.

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