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Imbolc (also Imbolg or Oimelc), or St Brigid’s Day (Scots Gaelic Là Fhèill Brìghde, Irish Lá Fhéile Bríde, the feast day of St. Brigid), is an Irish festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is celebrated on February 1 or 2 (or February 12, according to the Old Calendar), which falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere.
The festival was observed in Gaelic Ireland during the Middle Ages. Reference to Imbolc is made in Irish mythology, in the Tochmarc Emire of the Ulster Cycle. Imbolc was one of the four cross-quarter days referred to in Irish mythology, the others being Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. It has been suggested that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid, who was later Christianised as St. Brigid.
In the 20th century, Imbolc was resurrected as a religious festival in Neopaganism, specifically in Wicca, Neo-druidry and Celtic reconstructionism.
Irish imbolc derives from the Old Irish i mbolg "in the belly". This refers to the pregnancy of ewes. A medieval glossary etymologizes the term as oimelc "ewe's milk".
Since Imbolc is immediately followed (on 2 February) by Candlemas (Irish Lá Fhéile Muire na gCoinneal "feast day of Mary of the Candles", Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau), Irish imbolc is sometimes rendered as "Candlemas" in English translation; e.g. iar n-imbulc, ba garb a ngeilt translated as "after Candlemas, rough was their herding".
A significance of the date of Imbolc already in the Irish Neolithic period has been suggested, based on the arrangement of a number of Megalithic monuments, such as the Mound of the Hostages at the Hill of Tara. At this site in County Meath the inner chamber of the passage tomb is aligned with the rising sun on the dates of Imbolc and Samhain.
Evidence of how Imbolc was celebrated in Gaelic Ireland is found in medieval Irish texts that mention the festival, besides folklore collected during the 19th and early 20th century in rural Ireland and Scotland.
Among agrarian peoples, Imbolc has been traditionally associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, soon to give birth to the spring lambs. Chadwick notes that this could vary by as much as two weeks before or after the start of February. However, the timing of agrarian festivals can vary widely, given regional variations in climate. This has led to some debate about both the timing and origins of the festival. The Blackthorn is said to blossom at Imbolc.
The holiday was, and for many still is, a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods (butter, milk, and bannocks, for example), divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permits. Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather prognostication, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens is perhaps a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day. A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
"The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground."
Imbolc is the day the Cailleach — the hag of Gaelic tradition — gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people are generally relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on Imbolc in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.
Fire and purification are an important aspect of this festival. Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bríde, Brigit, Brìd) is the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
In the modern Irish Calendar, Imbolc is variously known as the Feast of Saint Brigid (Secondary Patron of Ireland), Lá Fhéile Bríde, and Lá Feabhra — the first day of Spring. Christians may call the day "Candlemas". Long celebrated as "the feast of the Purification of the Virgin".
One folk tradition that continues in both Christian and Pagan homes on St. Brigid's Day (or Imbolc) is that of the Brigid's Bed. The girls and young, unmarried, women of the household or village create a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brideog ("little Brigid" or "young Brigid"), adorning it with ribbons and baubles like shells or stones. They make a bed for the Brideog to lie in. On St. Brigid's Eve (January 31), the girls and young women gather together in one house to stay up all night with the Brideog, and are later visited by all the young men of the community who must ask permission to enter the home, and then treat them and the corn dolly with respect.
Brigid is said to walk the earth on Imbolc eve. Before going to bed, each member of the household may leave a piece of clothing or strip of cloth outside for Brigid to bless. The head of the household will smother (or "smoor") the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they look for some kind of mark on the ashes, a sign that Brigid has passed that way in the night or morning. The clothes or strips of cloth are brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection.
On the following day, the girls carry the Brideog through the village or neighborhood, from house to house, where this representation of the Saint/Goddess is welcomed with great honor. Adult women — those who are married or who run a household — stay home to welcome the Brigid procession, perhaps with an offering of coins or a snack. Since Brigid represents the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence is very important at this time of year.
Neopagans of diverse traditions observe this holiday in a variety of ways. As forms of Neopaganism can be quite different and have very different origins, these representations can vary considerably despite the shared name. Some celebrate in a manner as close as possible to how the Ancient Celts are believed to have observed the festival, as well as how these customs have been maintained in the living Celtic cultures. Other types of Neopagans observe the holiday with rituals taken from numerous other unrelated sources, Celtic cultures being only one of the sources used.
Imbolc is usually celebrated by modern Pagans on February 1 or 2nd in the northern hemisphere, and August 1 or 2nd in the southern hemisphere. Some Neopagans time this celebration to the solar midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox, which now falls later in the first week or two of February. Since the Celtic year was based on both lunar and solar cycles, it is most likely that the holiday would be celebrated on the full moon nearest the midpoint between the winter solstice and vernal equinox, or when the primroses, dandelions, or other spring flowers rise up through the snow, or when the sun aligned with the passage tombs among the pre-Celtic megaliths.
Like other Reconstructionist traditions, Celtic Reconstructionists place emphasis on historical accuracy and cultural preservation. They base their Imbolc celebrations on traditional lore and customs that have been maintained in the Six Celtic nations and the Irish and Scottish diasporas. They also employ research into the older beliefs of the polytheistic Celts. They usually celebrate the festival when the first stirrings of spring are felt, or on the full moon that falls closest to this time. Many use traditional songs and rites from sources such as The Silver Bough and The Carmina Gadelica. It is especially a time of honoring the Goddess Brighid, and many of her dedicants choose this time of year for rituals to her.
Wiccans celebrate a variation of Imbolc as one of four "fire festivals", which make up half of the eight holidays (or "sabbats"), of the wheel of the year. Imbolc is defined as a cross-quarter day, midway between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara). The precise astrological midpoint in the Northern hemisphere is when the sun reaches fifteen degrees of Aquarius. In the Southern hemisphere, if celebrated as the beginning of local Spring, the date is the midpoint of Leo. Sometimes the festival is referred to as "Brigid". Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolc (also referred to as "Candlemas") is the traditional time for initiations.
In Wicca, Imbolc is commonly associated with the goddess Brigid, and hence the Wiccan Goddess, and as such it is sometimes viewed as a "women’s festival" with specific rites only for female members of a coven.