The 1st of February is a special day in the Irish calendar. Known as Imbolc, it falls exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. February 1st traditionally celebrates the beginning of Spring, and marks the feast day of Brigid.
What is Imbolc? Imbolc is one of four ancient Irish festivals. Bealtaine is celebrated on May 1st, Lughnasadh on August 1st, and Samhain, is held on November 1st. These major Celtic festivals were celebrated with the lighting of fires.
The legends of ancient Irish folklore link Brigid to the Cailleach, the winter goddess. The Cailleach, or the hag, has been feared and revered across Celtic cultures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, for hundreds of years. Depicted as an old hag or crone with one eye, she strides across mountains with her bow-legged leaping gait, shaping and transforming the landscape as rocks fall from her apron. Being the goddess of the winter months, she controls the length and harshness of winter. Her season begins on October 31st, the Samhain festival, which we celebrate today as Halloween, and ends today, the 1st February, the cross-quarter day of Imbolc.
Some people say the name Imbolc comes from the old Irish imb-fholc, meaning ‘to thoroughly wash/ cleanse’. Aingeal Rose & I understand this to mean the ritual cleansing and purification brought about through fire and smoke. Because Brigid is popularly associated with sheep and lambs, others say Imbolc means ‘in the belly’, possibly referring to the lambing season in Ireland. Further, ‘in the belly’ implies gestation, both of animal and human, and the germination of seeds at the beginning of Spring.
Her festival also brings into awareness the subtle difference between the one known as Brigid and the now famous Saint. It is still uncertain if Saint Brigid was a real person. Various sources suggest that Saint Brigid actually grew from a myth about the original Celtic goddess, Brigid. Brigid was the Celtic Goddess of Spring. She was an ancient Irish goddess also associated with poetry, medicine, cattle, and arts and crafts. But the Catholic Church wanted to control the Irish Celts and so, made the Goddess into a saint. There are churches dedicated to Saint Brigid in many parts of the world. With time, she became an important icon for the church.
This year, this day has officially been declared a national bank holiday in Ireland. It is the first and only Irish national public holiday to celebrate a woman. For Saint Brigid, it grants her equal status with the world famous Saint Patrick.
For Aingeal Rose & I, we prefer to celebrate the Irish legends, myths, stories and folklore of the original Brigid, the queen of the Gaels, Brigid the Exalted One, Brigid beloved of poets, Brigid the Irish goddess of spring, fertility, and life.
To finish, here is a short poem from the Brigantine Sisters in Co. Kildare, Ireland.
- May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
- Bless every fireside every wall and door
- Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
- Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
- Bless every foot that walks its portals through
- May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.
Aingeal Rose & Ahonu