The Festival Of Imbolc


Time: Sunset 31 January-sunset 2 February (31 July-2 August in the southern hemisphere)
Focus: New growth, melting the ice, bringing light into the darkness, the return of the Maiden Goddess
This was the festival of early spring when ewe’s milk was first available after the long, cold winter and
the first shoots might be seen in the still-frozen fields. One of the Celtic names for the pagan festival
was Brigantia, named after Brighid, the Celtic Triple Goddess, here in her maiden aspect ending the
rule of the old hag of winter. She was christianised as St Bridget of Kildare, whose day is 1 February.
Brigantia was also the name of a Gallic Earth goddess.
Blazing torches were carried deosil around the still-frozen fields and sacred fires were lit on hilltops to
attract the new Sun. It is said that Brighid went around the fields with her white wand of fire, melting
the snows and stirring new life, so it is primarily a festival of light. In both pagan and Christian
traditions it has involved the lighting of candles and torches, to restore warmth and light into the world.
The maiden goddess Brighid in myth mated with Lugh the young god of light and so, traditionally, a
virgin was chosen to mate with the chief of the tribe to ensure the coming of new life to the land. It is
said that, like Lugh, he embraced Cailleach, the old hag of winter who was thus transformed in his
arms into the Maiden Goddess.
In medieval times, a girl representing Brighid would be brought to the door of the main house or
farmstead of a village with cows and a cauldron, symbols of plenty. Her straw bridal bed would be
created close to the fire, adorned with ribbons and blessed with honey. Milk, the first available after the
winter, was central to the festival as a symbol of renewed fertility. It was poured on the bed of straw.
Workers from the farms and villages would approach the bride bed, and in return for a coin, a posy of
flowers or tiny gift would receive her kiss, bestowing blessing on their trade and homes.
In churches, the candles that were to be used for the coming year in ceremony were purified on the
feast of Candlemas on 1 February. Each person was given a blessed candle that acted as protector of
the home against storms, fire and flood and defended cattle and crops against evil.
The energies of this seasonal festival are good for the regeneration of any areas devastated by neglect
or pollution, for melting rigid attitudes that may have led to conflicts between counties or ethnic
groups, and the isolation and alienation of disadvantaged groups through prejudice. They are especially
helpful for the welfare of infants, small children and animals.
On a personal level, these gentle rituals can bring mental, emotional and spiritual regeneration,
especially if you have been hurt or lack confidence. If you carry them out, by Easter you will be filled
with new optimism and a sense of direction and hopefully any new relationships, whether for love or
friendship, initiated at Imbolc will be slowly but gradually developing.
Traditionally, those celebrating this festival would light candles and place them at each window of
their houses on 31 January or Candlemas Night, 1 February, and leave them to burn down completely.
For safety reasons, nowadays, however, many people use the type of electric candle sets that are
popular in windows in Swedish homes before Christmas.
A single, large, white candle was also lit in or near the family hearth as a centrepiece for the family
feast on the same evening to welcome back the Maiden energies and to bring blessings on home and
family. The traditional Brighid straw and beribboned crosses were woven and passed though the
candle flame, thereafter serving as amulets to keep homes, animals and barns from harm. These
crosses, whose four arms extend at different points around a square centre, are still dedicated to St
Brighid and are still kept in homes for protection.
As before, if you wish to carry out a similar ritual, choose candles, crystals, incenses, etc. of the correct
associations to strengthen your ceremony.
Candle colours: White, cream and pink or any pale colour – these are associated with innocence and
Crystals: Garnet and bloodstones, also amethysts, rose quartz and gentle moonstones for awakening
fertility and feelings
Symbols: Ice, milk, seeds, first snowdrops or very early-budding leaves or flowers
Flowers, herbs, oils and incenses: Angelica, basil, benzoin, celandine, heather and myrrh
A Ritual To Release The Frozen Life Force
Work after dusk on the eve of 31 January or on the following evening, 1 February, and perhaps
incorporate the ritual into your Candlemas party. With close supervision, even children can join in the
ritual. Place the candles in a deep holders and make the miniature straw bed perhaps in a deep metal
bowl or even the family hearth, if it is no longer used for fires.
* On a table, your altar or the hearth, create a small bride bed of straw or dried grasses, decorated with
coloured ribbons and any early flowers. Near it place a tiny fabric doll or any small doll to represent
the Maiden Goddess.
* Encircle the bed with seeds and newly budding flowers or greenery and behind it, at a safe distance
to avoid the danger of fire, place a single, tall, white ‘bride’ candle.
* On a tray in front of the bride bed, place an earthenware jug of milk, a small dish of honey and a dish
containing an ice cube or small amount of ice. Round these, again being careful to avoid fire risk, set a
circle of small pink and pastel candles.
* Light first your ‘bride’ candle, saying:
Bride, bride, enter your bower, your reign begins at this hour.
The old hag her sway is done, winter’s gone, new spring has won.
* Place the doll in the bed and then light the candles surrounding the jug deosil, saying:
The maiden’s wand of fire does melt the snow, Ice depart and spring flowers grow.
* Drop the ice or ice cubes into the jug of milk, stirring it deosil with a wooden spoon or birch twig,
repeating the chant.
* Add a teaspoon of honey to the milk and again stir your jug deosil, saying:
Flow, life anew, through bud and flower, the thrall of winter has no power; Flow, love and joy and
growth and light, ice and snow begone from sight.
* Leave the ice to melt while you and any others present can place coins, flowers and ribbons on the
bride bed, making wishes for the coming spring, for the land, the creatures, for others and for
* When the ice is melted, stir the jug and very carefully pour a single drop on the bride bed, saying;
See, bride, I bring the first milk, symbol of nourishment and fertility, honey from the warm South,
heralding fertility and abundance and above all the life force now released that can transform wish
into reality and sustain us through the days of cold and wet still to come.
For we have seen the spring and so I send you light, that light may be shed throughout the world.
* Blow your tiny candles out widdershins, naming for each a blessing that you ask for the world.
* Leave the ‘bride’ candle to burn through and the bride bed in place for the rest of the festival.
If you are working in a coven, you can create a real, full-sized bride bed and choose the youngest
member to be the bride. I once carried out the ritual on television, in which all the crew came to kiss
the bride, played by Becky, the presenter, and ask her blessing. In spite of their over-enthusiasm and
the male presenter Carl’s generosity in spreading honey on all who came near, the festival was well and
truly a celebration of the return of life.

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