Today is Groundhog Day and, this year, since Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, spring is coming early. In the Pagan calendar, it is Imbolc (or Imbolg), which has marked the beginning of spring since ancient times, coming at the midpoint between the astronomical winter solstice (“Yule”) and the spring equinox (“Ostara”) in the northern hemisphere. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals that fall at the ‘quarter cross points’ between the equinoxes and the solstices, along with Beltane, Lugnasadh, and Samhain.
Imbolc was a time to celebrate Brigid (Brigit, Brighid, Bride, Bridget, Bridgit, Brighde, Bríd), the Celtic Goddess of inspiration, healing, and smithcraft with associations to fire, the hearth and poetry. When Ireland was Christianized in the 5th century, the festival of Brigid became Saint Brigid’s Day, although the chronology of the transmigration from the Celtic goddess to the Christian saint is not universally accepted. Imbolc derives from the Old Irish imbolg meaning in the belly, a time when sheep began to lactate and their udders filled and the grass began to grow.It thus coincided with the beginning of the lambing season, the spring sowing, and some of the earliest blooming plants. The gentle curve of a ‘just-showing’ pregnancy embodies the promise of renewal, expectancy and hope.
Evidence indicates that Imbolc has been an important date in the Irish, Scottish and Manx calendar since ancient times. The holiday was a festival of hearth and home with celebrations often embodying hearth fires, feasting, divination for omens of good fortune, and candles or bonfires representing the return of warmth and light. The point of many rituals seemed to be to invite Brigid, and the good fortune she would bring, into the home. Activities included:
— Brigid crosses, consisting of reeds or willows woven in a four-armed equilateral cross, often hung over doors, windows, or stables for protection
— making Bridey (Brideog, Breedhoge, or ‘Biddy’) dolls, representing Brigid, which were paraded from house to house. People would make a bed for her and leave her food and drink.
— visiting of holy wells, which are circled ‘sunwise’ and offerings left. Water from the well was used to bless home, family members, livestock and fields.
— a “spring cleaning” was customary
— Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination. Old traditions of watching to see if various animals returned from their winter dens seem to be forerunners of Groundhog Day.
Although many of the customary observances of Imbolc died out during the 20th century, it is still observed and in some places has been revived as a cultural event.Brigid’s Day parades have been revived in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry, which holds a yearly “Biddy’s Day Festival”. Men and women wearing elaborate straw hats and masks visit public houses carrying a Brídeóg to bring good luck for the coming year. They play folk music, dance and sing. The highlight of this festival is a torchlight parade through the town followed by a song and dance contest. Most recently, neopagans and Wiccans have observed Imbolc as a religious holiday.
’…It is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. Brighid’s snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather, (the origin of Ground
Hog Day), and in many places the first Crocus flowers began to spring forth from the frozen earth.
The Maiden is honored, as the Bride, on this Sabbat. Straw Brideo’gas (corn dollies) are created from oat or wheat straw and placed in baskets with white flower bedding. Young girls then carry the Brideo’gas door to door, and gifts are bestowed upon the image from each household. Afterwards at the traditional feast, the older women make special acorn wands for the dollies to hold, and in the morning the ashes in the hearth are examined to see if the magic wands left marks as a good omen. Brighid’s Crosses are fashioned from wheat stalks and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year. Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and a besom is place by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new. Candles are lit and placed in each room of the house to honor the re-birth of the Sun.
Another traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plough. In some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden ploughed up. In other areas, the plough is decorated and then Whiskey, the “water of life” is poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plough and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time.
Various other names for this Greater Sabbat are Imbolgc Brigantia (Caledonni), Imbolic (Celtic), Disting (Teutonic, Feb 14th), Lupercus (Strega), St. Bridget’s Day (Christian), Candlemas, Candlelaria (Mexican), the Snowdrop Festival. The Festival of Lights, or the Feast of the Virgin. All Virgin and Maiden Goddesses are honored at this time…’
(Via Celtic Connection)
Imbolc also corresponds with Candlemas, the Christian observance of the baby Jesus’ presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem to officially induct him into Judaism when he was forty days old. It was originally described in the Gospel of Luke as a purification ritual. On Candlemas, a priest traditionally blesses candles which are distributed to the faithful for use throughout the year. In some places, they are placed in windows during storms to ward off damage.
Interestingly, in Scotland, along with Michaelmas, Lammas and Whitsun, Candlemas is one of the four term and quarter days, the four divisions of the legal year, historically used as the days when contracts and leases would begin and end, servants would be hired or dismissed, and rent, interest on loans, and ministers’ stipends would become due. Although they were later fixed by law as falling on the 28th day every three months, they originally occurred on holy days, corresponding roughly to old quarter days used in both Scotland and Ireland.
Some foreign observances:
In France and Belgium, Candlemas (French: La Chandeleur) is celebrated with crêpes.
In Italy, traditionally, it (Italian: La Candelora) is considered the last cold day of winter.
Tenerife (Spain), Is the day of the Virgin of Candelaria (Saint Patron of the Canary Islands). 2 February.
In Southern and Central Mexico, and Guatemala City, Candlemas (Spanish: Día de La Candelaria) is celebrated with tamales. Tradition indicates that on 5 January, the night before Three Kings Day (the Epiphany), whoever gets one or more of the few plastic or metal dolls (originally coins) buried within the Rosca de Reyes must pay for the tamales and throw a party on Candlemas. In certain regions of Mexico, this is the day in which the baby Jesus of each household is taken up from the nativity scene and dressed up in various colorful, whimsical outfits.
In Luxembourg, Liichtmëss sees children carrying lighted sticks visiting neighbors and singing a traditional song in exchange for sweets.
Sailors are often reluctant to set sail on Candlemas Day, believing that any voyage begun then will end in disaster—given the frequency of severe storms in February, this is not entirely without sense.