all of the customs associated with Imbolc are no longer performed,
even in rural areas. This essay describes some of the customs
found in archives and collections.
The Evidence for Imbolc
of the evidence of how Imbolc was celebrated in Ireland derives
from folklore collected during the last two hundred years and
cross-cultural studies of similar customs in Scandinavia. Folklorists
have collected a great deal of data about Imbolc. Much Irish
data now lies in the archives of the National University, Dublin.
In Festival of Brigit, Séamas Ó Catháin
did an important study of this material and compared it to similar
traditions in Scandinavia, but this is only a first step. Kim
McCone and others have done important analyses of the medieval
hagiography of St. Brigid and what it tells us about her cult
and pagan roots. Similar studies need to be done of Imbolc and
Brigid in other Celtic cultures. Alexander Carmichael collected
some material on Imbolc in the Highlands for his Carmina Gadelica,
but his study was far from exhaustive. Until such wide-ranging
analysis and collation takes place, suggestions about the original
rituals can only be preliminary hypotheses, suggestions for
essay presents the customs as we know them from the folklore
archives and some suggestions of the original meaning, context,
and actions that lay behind the more recent activities.
Customs of Imbolc
seem to have been two basic types of rituals associated with
Imbolc: those performed by the community and those that centered
on the family and household. Even some of the community activities
involved going from home to home.
of the customs focus on the figure of Brigid and depend on the
belief that on the evening before 1 February, the holy woman
was thought to visit each home, acknowledging the offerings
left for her.
Irish saying noted the lengthening day that marked the time
of Imbolc: "On St. Brigid's day you can put away the candlestick
and half the candle." (Danaher, 1972, p. 14) Many of the
folk customs focus on the increasing warmth and light, the rebirth
of the cold earth into pliability, and the birth process itself.
It is likely that myths and stories underlie these customs,
but at this point it is difficult to say exactly what those
stories were. However, the rituals probably were, in some cases,
re-enactment of the myths.
was a time when farmers and fishermen depended on steady improvement
in the weather. They also believed that the kind of weather
that occurred on Imbolc gave them some idea of how the coming
months would go, too. To start with, the weather on Imbolc should
be better than average, but a truly fine day was a bad sign.
The prevailing wind on Imbolc would continue for the rest of
appearance of a hedgehog up and about was a sign that weather
would continue to improve. If the hedgehog came out but then
returned to its burrow, it was thought that wintry conditions
would persist for several more weeks.
rainy February generally was thought to predict a good summer.
In Scotland, a charm was chanted that referred to a snake coming
from a hole. Doubtless, this referred to some divinatory or
fertility ritual whose origins and details have been lost. (Jones,
Ploughing the Land
on the geographic location, Imbolc was a time to make at least
a show of beginning the planting season. In some areas, the
farmer would turn over token soil and wait for warmer weather
to plough and plant. In more temperate areas, sowing might begin
at Imbolc. (Ó Catháin, pp. 4-5)
of household checked quantity and quality of flour, salted meat,
and other food, and the supplies of hay and other food for animals.
From these, they estimated the economies they would have to
take to make the supplies last until harvest. (Danaher, 1972,
house was tidied and prepared for the visit of Brigid. (Danaher,
1972, p. 15)
Lambing, Milk, and Butter
Imbolc, sheep began to lactate in preparation for birthing lambs.
The Imbolc rituals would be performed at least in part to ensure
a new crop of healthy lambs.
new sheep milk was a welcome supplement to the dwindling stores,
especially since cows would generally not be milking at that
time. Numerous writers note that the Irish diet depended heavily
on milk products, known as "white meats" during the
spring and summer months. Milk was often soured and processed
into different forms of curds and soft cheeses. Hard cheeses
were uncommon. Imbolc rituals were also focused at ensuring
the steady supply of milk.
was a very important food for the Irish prior to the twentieth
century. Recipes even called for hares to be boiled in butter.
After being churned, butter was put in wooden containers and
buried in bogs to "cure." The result was a rather
sour flavor considered characteristic of "country butter."
Freshly made butter was an important element in the Imbolc feast,
although various foods were associated with celebrating Imbolc,
depending on the region. The making of the butter – the
action of the dash working in the churn – would itself
represent the fertility being sought at the feast. The churn
dash was often used as the basis of the bríde óg,
the figure of Brigid carried in procession.
Food Offerings and Feasting
bit of soda bread, cake, butter, and/or porridge might be left
on the windowsill for Brigid to enjoy as she passed by, perhaps
with some feed for her favorite white cow. Sometimes the food
was given to the poor later. (Danaher, 1972, p. 15) Food was
also offered as part of other rituals. In some houses, a place
was set at the table for Brigid.
Feasting among the family was a central part of the rituals
held in the home. The rushes to be used in creating Brigid's
cross were put under the table while the feast took place.
folk practices at Imbolc in Ireland and Scotland included processions
that visited homes throughout the community and resemble the
processions described by Berger. In some places, the central
figure was a woman chosen to represent St. Brigid as An Bhrídeog.
Beforehand, talismans of woven straw or grass – called
the Cros (cross), Sgiath (shield), and Crothán (veil)
of Brigid – were distributed at each home and farm, to
be nailed up as protection for all within. Surrounded by an
accompanying group, An Bhrídeóg processed to each
home and farm where she engaged in a ritual dialog with the
residents and distributed a set of the talismans.
other places in Ireland, the brideóg was a figurine made
by dressing a doll or encasing a churn dash or other pole with
straw and adding a carved turnip for a head. The figurine was
carried by a group of young men called brídeóga
or Biddy boys, dressed in white shirts, masks, women's skirts,
and straw hats. These ambiguously dressed people carried the
brídeóg from one farm to another, singing, dancing,
or playing music, and receiving gifts of food, especially cakes,
butter, and eggs. (Danaher, 1972, pp. 25-27). More recently,
such groups wear masks and brightly colored clothing to which
ribbons, patches, and fringes have been added, and the offerings
they receive may be sweets or coins.
to holy wells and streams, especially at Faughart, co. Louth,
and Liscannor, co. Clare, have replaced the ritual bathing of
the goddess statue. However, the devotions performed by pilgrims
at those sites include ritual use of water from the well. (Berger,
p. 74) Frequently the home, family, and talismans are blessed
with water from such sites at Imbolc.
Highland variation on the parade of the brídeóg
holds specific reference to human fertility. The young women
of the community created a figurine from a churn dash and carried
it about to the various households, collecting offerings of
bread, butter, and other food. Later the young women feasted
on these in company with the young men of the community, followed
by singing and dancing throughout the night. (Jones, p. 82).
Bears and Honey
his carefully documented study, Ó Catháin suggests
that the rituals originally associated with Imbolc were part
of a cult of bears, honey, and mead. Figures of bears were made
in Ireland long after the animals ceased to live there. All
of these elements have associations with inspiration and knowledge.
Also, because of their hibernation habits, bears were closely
associated with the rebirth of the earth. It is difficult to
say now what those early rituals might have been, but Ó
Catháin's suggestions deserve more study.
Ó Catháin has also noted the parallels between
Imbolc rituals and those that traditionally accompanied childbirth
in rural Scandinavia. The ritual of stepping through the críos
or girdle of Bríg may be a symbolic re-enactment of birth.
At this point, it is unclear exactly what well rituals of rebirth
were once associated with Imbolc to ensure the fertility of
the awakening land. However, at a time when the natural world
was coming out of its wintry sleep, one would expect rituals
to dramatically re-enact this fact.
is probably not accidental that the holy well at Liscannor is
situated underground; perhaps devotees once descended into the
well chamber and re-emerged ritually. (Brenneman & Brenneman,
104). MacNeill notes that Liscannor was primarily a site of
pilgrimage at Lughnasadh, but two of her sources attest that
it was also a site used at Imbolc. (Mac Neill, p. 276-277).
highlights the basic theme of Imbolc: the rebirth of the land
from its wintry, death-like sleep into new life. It's unclear
whether the associated goddess was thought to be reborn herself
or whether she was the agent for regenerating the land. Because
the land is being reborn, new crops can be planted.
most of the animals were also giving birth or preparing to do
so. This accounts for the emphasis on food production that is
so much a part of Imbolc: the farmers needed to perform rituals
they believed would ensure that crops grew and herds flourished.
Finally, Imbolc emphasized human fertility necessary for families
and households to grow and maintain their position on the land
and in the tribe.
Berger, The Goddess Obscured, Beacon Press, 1985; ISBN
Brenneman and Mary Brenneman, Crossing the Circle at the
Holy Wells of Ireland, Univ Press of Virginia (1995); ISBN:
Danaher, The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs,
(1972) Irish Books & Media (1972); ISBN: 0-9377-0213-7
Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, Irish Amer Book Co (1997);
Jones, Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent, Floris Books,
Mac Neill, Festival at Lughnasa, Oxford Univ. Press,
McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish
Literature, An Sagart, 1990
Ó Catháin, The Festival of Brigit, DBA
article from the Celtic Well E-Journal is © 1999
by Francine Nicholson.