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  • Writer's pictureHannah McQuilkan

Imbolc - the festival of Brigid

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

In the darkness of winter there comes a time when we start to long for more light. For our ancestors the return of that light was crucial for their survival, the winter food stores would now be getting low and the longing for spring to break was surely felt.

After the winter solstice and before the spring equinox is the Celtic festival of Imbolc. A time which celebrated this fragile return to the light. Lambs begin to be born, the daffodils are blooming and the days grow gradually brighter. The name Imbolc refers to the first milk of the year as the ewes give birth to their lambs and herald in the return of new life. In the Northern Hemisphere this falls on February 1st and in the Southern Hemisphere on August 1st and it was most likely originally celebrated on the nearest new moon.

All hail to the Goddess of the Spring, as the old woman of winter, the Cailleach softens her icy grip and gives way for the maiden Brigid to warm our world. For this reason, Imbolc is known as The Festival of Brigid, a much beloved and enduring Celtic Goddess and then Christian Saint. Imbolc festivities are centred around honouring Brigid as the bringer of light. Let us unpack this complex and fascinating figure central to this festival and time of year.

Brigid goes by many names including Bride, Brigit, Brighid, Brìd, Brígh, Brigantia and Brittania. There are many places named after Brigit, including Brechin in Scotland and Bridewell in Ireland, even the name Britain itself! Britain was named for the ancient Celtic tribe the Brigantes who worshipped Brigit and were probably the largest Celtic tribe to occupy the British Isles.

Brigit is an ancient Goddess. She has been worshiped by the Celtic people as a Saint for over fifteen hundred years and as a Goddess long before the Roman invasion of Britain and the birth of Christ. Her cult was so powerful that the Celtic Christian Church had to adopt her as a Saint, and the Roman Catholic Church followed suit, for her people would not abandon her. Along with St. Patrick, she is the patron Saint of Ireland. St. Brigit is often referred to as Muire na nGael ‘Mary of the Gael’. Mara Freeman in the book ‘Kindling the Celtic Spirit states, ‘Brigit is the nearest thing we have to a Great Mother of the Celts.’

Celtic Brigid:

Brigid is in her most simple form a Sun Goddess, who brings forth the first rays of the sun after a long winter and whose gift of fire bestows us with many blessings. Brigid is the patron Goddess of poets, healers and smiths, a triple Goddess with the fire of transformation in each of her aspects. The fire of inspiration for poets, the fire of transmutation for healers and the fire of the forge for blacksmiths. She is also a patron of other womanly arts – midwifery, dyeing, weaving and brewing and the guardian of children and farm animals – particularly cows.

She takes her place as a Goddess in the Irish pantheon. A 10th century Irish glossary describes her as one of the Tuatha de Danann, the ancient Irish faery race and the daughter of the Dagda (the chief of this race) and the sister of Ogma, who invented the Ogham alphabet. She was the wife of Bres, King of the Fomorians (who were at war with the Tuatha de Danaan). Brigit was said to have been the mediator of peace between the two ancient warring tribes. In other sources, Brigid is the daughter of Boann, the Goddess of the River Boyne in Ireland. Boann (bo fhionn) means ‘white cow’, an association she shares with Brigid.

Christian Brigit:

Its hard to say where Celtic Brigid ends and Christian Brigit the Saint begins for indeed they are one and the same. With the coming of Christianity, the powerful energy of the goddess was transformed into Irelands beloved Saint, second only to St Patrick himself. Saint Brigit was supposedly born in the year 453 C.E and was the daughter of a druid who had a vision that she would be named after a great goddess. She was born at sunrise while her mother walked over a threshold. Sunset and sunrise as well as the threshold of a house were considered to be thin places, that penetrated into the Otherworld, highlighting Brigit’s magical attributes. As a child she was unable to eat regular food and was reared on the milk of a special white, red eared cow. Cows like this are considered to be otherworldly from the Faery realm in Celtic lore. As an adult a white cow accompanied her and supplied all the milk she needed.

In Scotland she is known as Bride and legend states that angels came to escort Bride to the manger where, as a midwife, she delivered the Christ child. For this reason she is known as the Foster Mother of Christ and was invoked during labour and childbirth. Given that she was said to be born 500 years after Christ, this is an interesting example where Goddess and Saint merge.

In one Irish story, the girl who later became St. Brigid went to the King of Leinster, and petitioned him for land so she could build an abbey. The King, who still held to the old Pagan practices of Ireland, told her he'd be happy to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Naturally, her cloak grew and grew until it covered as much property as Brigid needed and she got her abbey. She was Irelands first nun and the guardian of an eternal flame that burned within the sacred enclosure of her abbey in Kildare. During her lifetime twenty nuns kept watch over this flame and when she died nineteen continued to watch over it, giving it over to Brigid to watch on the twentieth night. Originally St Brigid abbey may have been a sanctuary of the Brigantes tribe, presided over by the high priestess of Brigantia.

In 1993, Brigits sacred flame was relit after 400 years by the ancient order of the Brigidine sisters and in 2006 a perpetual flame to Brigit has been lit in the town centre of Kildare itself. Truly a time of the Goddess and Divine Feminine reawakening in our modern world once again.

Traditional Celebrations:

This would have originally been a festival focused around women, given Brigit’s association with women, fertility and childbirth. On Brides eve, the girls made a female figure from corn and decorated her with coloured shells, crystals and spring flowers. This figure was then carried around town by the Bride maiden band and everyone they visited had to pay homage to Bride by giving her a gift of a flower, while mothers gave gifts of bannock (traditional bread), cheese or butter.

The girls then spent the night at a house preparing the Bride feast with the Bride doll in a place of honour. Fresh butter was always churned due to Brigit’s association with cows and milk. It was important to leave an offering for Bride on the windowsill for her as she visited each house and sometimes a sheaf of corn for her cow to eat as well. The traditional food was a round, unleavened oat bread called a strone in Ireland and a bannock in Scotland, always served with lashings of butter.

“Samhain eve without food,

Christmas Night without bread,

Saint Brigit's Eve without butter,

That is a sorry complaint”.

Young men of the town soon came knocking and were let in to pay tribute to Bride and then there was much song, dance and merry making. Even today there are places in Scotland where Saint Brides Day is still honoured.

Celebrating Imbolc today:

Imbolc is a traditional time of purification and the origination of the great spring clean! Take some time to clean your house thoroughly and to throw away items no longer needed.

Fill your house with candles and put them at the windows so Brigit can find your house and bless it.

A simple and lovely way to honour the festival of Imbolc is to create an altar in honour of Brigit in your home. Cover it in a white cloth and put spring flowers and evergreen plants upon it. Place a candle in the centre to honour this fire goddess. Find something to represent Bride, perhaps make a straw doll, find a picture or something else like a seed packet or crystal.

Sit in front of the altar and invoke Brigit using this traditional incantation from Scotland:

“Brigit of the mantles,

Brigit of the peat heap,

Brigit of the twining hair,

Brigit of the augury,

Brigit of the white palms,

Brigit of the calmness,

Brigit of the kindness,

Brigit of the kine."

Carmina Gadelica.

Feel the shift of energy that signals Brigit’s presence and then ask her in your own words to keep yourself and your loved ones safe over the following year. Spend a few moments visualising what you would like to see begin or grow this spring for yourself, your loved ones, your community and the world. Ask Brigit to bless these visions.

There are many simple recipes online where you can learn to make traditional bannocks, enjoy them with lashings of butter and hot tea and milk. Leave some extra on your window sill for Brigit.

“Faoi bhrat Bhrìde sinn!”

“May you be under Brigit’s mantle!.”

If you would like to celebrate Imbolc in a most magical way, join me for a gathering to be held on Sunday August 8th from 6.30-8.30pm.

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