Another post using material from my incomplete draft book.
Something changes. Maybe it is the first tips of green coming through the earth from bulbs dormant over the winter. Maybe it is the quality of sunlight and the fact it lasts that bit longer. Maybe it is the first snowdrop you see. Or perhaps, like me, it is that hard to describe smell or the earth warming, a fleeting sign that something is changing.
Imbolc, Imbolg or Bride’s Day is often referred to as the first of the spring festivals although spring may still be far away. For me this time of year is more about the promise of spring than spring itself. My garden still looks pretty bare but bulbs are beginning to send up their leaves and my rhubarb is beginning to come through again. And yes, the snowdrops are beginning to come out too.
Imbolc is usually dated as the 1st February although some do celebrate on 2nd February. The meanings given to the word itself seem to be unclear. One of the more popular meanings is “ewe’s milk” but my understanding is that among scholars this is generally thought to be drawn from folk lore and not accurate. Certainly if you have sheep in your area and they are due to lamb quite early in the spring the ewes might be coming into milk but milk doesn’t really come in fully for mammals until the young are born. Udders or breasts do begin to swell before young are born but you don’t get much out of them until after the birth takes place.
One more accurate meaning of the word Imbolc or Imbolg (which is the modern Irish spelling I believe) is “in the belly” referring to the pregnancy of ewes. If you have been around pregnant ewes at this time of year the pregnancy is now becoming more obvious to the eye as the lamb grows within the ewe. Another possible meaning dates to Old Irish and is linked to cleansing or ritual purification.
Regardless of the exact meaning of the word it is a time linked to the first signs of spring and also more importantly to Brigid, Goddess and Saint. Whether you are a polytheist or not this is one festival where you are given a very clear pointer to a particular being. Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Bhride, Bride, Brid and Brig are just some of the names given to this incredibly popular being, a being that is as loved as a Saint as She is as a Goddess. There have been several books written about this being and there is no way I can do justice to Her here. As a very light overview I will say that She is sometimes thought of as a single being, sometimes as three, sometimes as a Goddess, sometimes as a Saint. The three connected beings are Brigid the Poet, Brigid the Smith and Brigid the Healer. Fire and water are sacred to Her. Many wells across Ireland and the UK are dedicated to Her as Saint Brighid. These few words merely touch the surface of who She is and can be.
Purification and cleansing is one of the themes at this time so anything that links with that can be a good choice of activity. It’s a good time to begin some spring cleaning and some home cleansing and blessing.
I have been asked in the past how to go about removing negative influences from something. I make sure whoever asks knows that there are several methods that can be used before offering my own preference. I start with physical cleaning, whether it is an object, a place or even yourself the first step is physical. While you physically clean whatever it is you keep in your mind that this is the first step of a complete cleansing, this adds a focused intent to your physical activity. After that step I recommend a ritual cleanse and blessing. The ritual aspect of cleansing is to sprinkle the item, area or person with water blessed for use in cleansing. When I prepare blessed water I ask Brigantia, Maponos and Clutha (my local major river goddess) to work through me to bless the water that it may cleanse the spirit. After cleansing with blessed water I then recommend use of some form of sacred smoke, that could be incense sticks, loose incense or some form of bundle of herbs similar to Native American smudge bundles. A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to using meadowsweet bundles and I find these to be very effective. The idea is that the smoke is carried or wafted around whatever it is being cleansed and purified. If using smoke is a problem then I recommend using a special candle, perhaps a scented one but natural beeswax is a lovely option for this and you carry the lit candle around instead of wafting smoke. Water and fire are both strongly linked to Brigid in different ways which makes this time of year a particularly good one for doing this type of cleansing and purification work in my opinion. As you go through this process you can chant or pray or simply silently focus on the process of cleansing.
Once you have done whatever cleansing you wish to do you can then move onto other activities. One of the more popular activities is the making of Brigid’s crosses. There are many ways of doing this now although the most traditional materials are rushes or straw. You can also use strips of paper, pipe cleaners or even wire. Traditionally these are hung up in the home ideally over doors or windows. They were and still are symbols of welcoming Brigid and of blessing. Traditionally these are kept up for the year replacing them the following Bride’s Day when the old one, if made of rushes or straw, was burnt on the hearth fire. Now they are often kept much longer. I have one hanging in a back window made with pipe cleaners that is at least four years old now. This is a fun activity to try with children too.
Another possibility is to make a Brideog (Little Brigid) doll. Again traditionally these would be made of straw or rushes and often woven like autumn corn dollies. The doll is then decorated and dressed. A bed is prepared for the doll and the doll is then taken to the front door. One person, traditionally a woman, announces that Bride’s bed is ready, another calls out “Let Bride come in. Bride’s bed is ready.” The doll is then placed in her bed and left overnight. In times gone by where most homes had a hearth fire Bride’s bed would be beside the hearth and the ashes smoothed over before everyone retired to bed. In the morning the ashes would be examined for marks, ideally footprints, that were considered to be a blessing from Bride.
As with any festival sharing food and drink is always popular. For Imbolc dairy foods are usually considered particularly appropriate. Milk or water to drink are also good choices. Water because so many of Brigid’s links are to holy wells.
One of the traditions that I am very fond of is the Brat Bride or cloth. The cloth in question is sometimes a piece of fabric, sometimes a knitted cloth sometimes even a ribbon. The cloth is hung outside or placed on a windowsill overnight for Bride to bless as She passes. The cloth is then used during the year to aid in healing work. I am fortunate enough to have a piece of cloth that was originally part of a much larger cloth first blessed one Imbolc at Kildare, one of the most holy sites associated with Brigid as Saint. It was a gift to me many years ago and one I treasure. Each year I hang it outside again at Imbolc to renew the blessings on it and it has been used several times as an aid to healing.
Throughout this section I have deliberately used different spellings and variations of the many names associated with Brighid. Whether She is honoured as Bride, Brigid, Brig or any one of Her names this festival is very much dedicated to Her. Some of those who follow a Brythonic path now call this festival Brigantica and honour Brigantia at this time. It is Brigantia and my relationship with Her that I will turn to in my next post.
Hutton, R. (1996) The Stations of the Sun Oxford University Press
F. Marian McNeill (1959) The Silver Bough Vol Two: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals Candlemas to Harvest Home Stuart Titles Ltd
Daimler M (2016) Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge and Healing Well Moon Books