Celtic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring

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Imbolc / St Brigid's Day
Also calledLá Fhéile Bríde (Irish)
Là Fhèill Brìghde (Scottish Gaelic)
Laa'l Breeshey (Manx)
Observed byHistorically: Gaels
Today: Irish people, Scottish people, Manx people, Modern Pagans
Christian (Roman Catholic, Anglican),
Pagan (Celtic neopaganism, Wicca)
Significancebeginning of spring, feast day of Saint Brigid
Celebrationsfeasting, making Brigid's crosses and Brídeógs, visiting holy wells, divination, spring cleaning
Date1 February
(or 1 August for Neopagans in the S. Hemisphere)
Related toGŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau, Candlemas, Groundhog Day

Imbolc or Imbolg (Irish pronunciation: [ɪˈmˠɔlˠɡ]), also called Saint Brigid's Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Bríde; Scottish Gaelic: Là Fhèill Brìghde; Manx: Laa'l Breeshey), is a Gaelic traditional festival. It marks the beginning of spring, and for Christians it is the feast day of Saint Brigid, Ireland's patroness saint. It is held on 1 February, which is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.[1][2] Historically, its traditions were widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with: Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain.[3]

Imbolc is mentioned in early Irish literature, and there is evidence suggesting it was also an important date in ancient times. It is believed that Imbolc was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid, and that it was Christianized as the feast day of Saint Brigid, who could be a Christianization of the goddess.[4] The festivities on the feast of Saint Brigid did not begin to be recorded in detail until the early modern era. In recent centuries it was marked by the making of Brigid's crosses and a doll-like figure of Brigid (a Brídeóg) would be paraded from house-to-house by girls, sometimes accompanied by 'strawboys'. Brigid was said to visit one's home on the eve of the festival. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brigid and leave her food and drink, and items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless. Brigid was also evoked to protect homes and livestock. Special feasts were had, holy wells were visited, and it was a time for divination.

Although many of its customs died out in the 20th century, it is still observed by some Christians as a religious holiday and by some non-Christians as a cultural one, and its customs have been revived in some places. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Imbolc as a religious holiday.[1][2] From 2023, "Imbolc/St Brigid's Day" will be an annual public holiday in the Republic of Ireland.[5]

Origins and etymology

Scholars such as historian Ronald Hutton argue that the festival must have pre-Christian origins.[6] Some scholars argue that the date of Imbolc was significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period.[7] A few passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the times of Imbolc and Samhain. This includes the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara,[8][9] and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh.[10] Frank Prendergast argues that this alignment is so rare that it is rather a product of chance.[11]

The etymology of Imbolc/Imbolg is unclear. The most common explanation is that it comes from the Old Irish i mbolc (Modern Irish: i mbolg), meaning 'in the belly', and refers to the pregnancy of ewes at this time of year.[12] Joseph Vendryes linked it to the Old Irish verb folcaim, 'to wash/cleanse oneself'. He suggested that it referred to a ritual cleansing, similar to the ancient Roman festival Februa or Lupercalia, which took place at the same time of year.[13][14] Eric P. Hamp derives it from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning both 'milk' and 'cleansing'.[15] Professor Alan Ward derives it from the Proto-Celtic *embibolgon, 'budding'.[16] The early 10th century Cormac's Glossary has an entry for Oímelc, calling it the beginning of spring and deriving it from oí-melg ('ewe milk'), explaining it as "the time that sheep's milk comes".[17] However, linguists believe this is the writer's respelling of the word to give it an understandable etymology.[18]

The Táin Bó Cúailnge ('Cattle Raid of Cooley') indicates that Imbolc (spelt imolg) is three months after the 1 November festival of Samhain.[19] Imbolc is mentioned in another Old Irish poem about the Táin in the Metrical Dindshenchas: "iar n-imbulc, ba garb a ngeilt", which Edward Gwynn translates "after Candlemas, rough was their herding".[15] Candlemas is the Christian holy day which falls on 2 February and is known in Irish as Lá Fhéile Muire na gCoinneal, 'feast day of Mary of the Candles'.[20]

Hutton writes that Imbolc must have been "important enough for its date to be dedicated subsequently to Brigid … the Mother Saint of Ireland".[6] Cogitosus, writing in the late 7th century, first mentions a feast day of Saint Brigid being observed in Kildare on 1 February.[21] Brigid is said to have lived in the 6th century and founded the important monastery of Kildare. She became the focus of a major cult. However, there are few historical facts about her, and her early hagiographies "are mainly anecdotes and miracle stories, some of which are deeply rooted in Irish pagan folklore".[22] It is suggested that Saint Brigid is based on Brigid, a Gaelic goddess.[23] Like the saint, the goddess is associated with wisdom, poetry, healing, protection, blacksmithing and domesticated animals, according to Cormac's Glossary and Lebor Gabála Érenn.[21][24] It is suggested that the festival, which celebrates the onset of spring, is linked with Brigid in her role as a fertility goddess.[25] According to Hutton, it could be that the goddess Brigid was already linked to Imbolc and this was continued by making it the saint's feast day. Or it could be that Imbolc's association with milk drew the saint to it, because of a legend that she had been the wet-nurse of Christ.[6]

Historic customs

The original pre-Christian festival of Imbolc is mentioned in several early Irish manuscripts, but they say very little about its original rites and customs.[6] Imbolc was treated as one of four seasonal festivals in Gaelic Ireland along with Beltane (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August) and Samhain (1 November). The tale Tochmarc Emire, which survives in a 10th-century version, names Imbolc as one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, and says it is "when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning".[6][26] This linking of Imbolc with the arrival of lambs and sheep's milk probably reflected farming customs that ensured lambs were born before calves. In late winter/early spring, sheep could survive better than cows on the meager vegetation, and farmers sought to resume milking as soon as possible due to their dwindling stores.[13] The Hibernica Minora includes an Old Irish poem about the four seasonal festivals, translated by Kuno Meyer (1894). It says "Tasting of each food according to order, this is what is proper at Imbolc: washing the hands, the feet, the head". This suggests ritual cleansing.[13] Prominent folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin wrote: "The main significance of the Feast of St. Brigid would seem to be that it was a Christianisation of one of the focal points of the agricultural year in Ireland, the starting point of preparations for the spring sowing. Every manifestation of the cult of the saint (or of the deity she replaced) is bound up in some way with food production".[27]

From the 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of St Brigid were recorded by folklorists and other writers. They tell us how it was celebrated then, and shed light on how it may have been celebrated in the past.[2][28]

People making Brigid's crosses at St Brigid's Well near Liscannor

It has also been argued that originally the timing of the festival was more fluid and based on seasonal changes. It is associated with the onset of the lambing season[25] (which could vary by as much as two weeks before or after 1 February),[12] the beginning of preparations for the spring sowing,[27] and the blooming of blackthorn.[29] In Ireland, a spring cleaning was also customary around the time of St Brigid's Day.[30]

Holy wells were visited, as they were during some of the other Gaelic festivals. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking 'sunwise' around the well. They would then leave offerings, typically coins or clooties (see clootie well). Water from the well was used to bless the home, family members, livestock, and fields.[30][31]

Donald Alexander Mackenzie also recorded in the 19th century that offerings were made "to earth and sea". The offering could be milk poured into the ground or porridge poured into the water, as a libation.[32]

Saint Brigid

Painting of Saint Brigid with a bowl of fire, a spindle, and a cow in St. Patrick's Chapel, Glastonbury.

As well as being a springtime festival, it is the feast day of Saint Brigid (Old Irish: Brigit, modern Irish: Bríd, modern Scottish Gaelic: Brìghde or Brìd, anglicised Bridget).

On St Brigid's Eve, Brigid was said to visit virtuous households and bless the inhabitants.[6] As Brigid represented the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence was very important at this time of year.[33][34] Before going to bed, people would leave items of clothing or strips of cloth outside for Brigid to bless.[6] The clothes or strips of cloth would be brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection.[33][34]

Families would have a special meal or supper on St Brigid's Eve to mark the last night of winter.[6] This typically included food such as colcannon, sowans, dumplings, barmbrack or bannocks.[30] Often, some of the food and drink would be set aside for Brigid.[6]

In County Kilkenny graves were decorated on Imbolc with box and laurel flowers (or any other flowers that could be obtained at that time). Additionally a Branch of Virginity was decorated with white ribbons and placed on the grave of a recently deceased maiden on Imbolc.[35]

Brigid's bed

Brigid would be symbolically invited into the house and a bed would often be made for her. In the north of Ireland, a family member, representing Brigid, would circle the home three times carrying rushes. They would then knock on the door three times, asking to be let in. On the third attempt they are welcomed in, the meal is had, and the rushes are then made into crosses or a bed for Brigid.[36] In 18th century Mann, the custom was to stand at the door with a bundle of rushes and say "Brede, Brede, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Brede and let Brede come in". Similarly, in Donegal, the householder who was sent to fetch the drying russhes knelt on the front step and repeated the following chant three times, "Go on your knees, open your eyes, and let in St. Brigid." Those inside the house answered three times "She's welcome."[37] The rushes were then strewn on the floor as a carpet or bed for Brigid. In the 19th century, some old Manx women would make a bed for Brigid in the barn with food, ale, and a candle on a table.[6] The custom of making Brigid's bed was particularly common in the Hebrides of Scotland, where it was recorded as far back as the 17th century. A bed of hay or a basket-like cradle would be made for Brigid and someone would then call out three times: "a Bhríd, a Bhríd, thig a stigh as gabh do leabaidh" ("Bríd Bríd, come in; thy bed is ready").[6] A corn dolly called the dealbh Bríde (icon of Brigid) would be laid in the bed and a white wand, usually made of birch, would be laid beside it.[6] It represented the wand that Brigid was said to use to make the vegetation start growing again.[38] Ashes from the fire would be raked smooth and, in the morning, they would look for some kind of mark on the ashes as a sign that Brigid had visited.[6][39] If there was no mark, they believed bad fortune would come unless they buried a cockerel at the meeting of three streams as an offering and burned incense on their fire that night.[6] Women in some parts of the Hebrides would also dance while holding a large cloth and calling out "Bridean, Bridean, thig an nall 's dean do leabaidh" ("Bríd, Bríd, come over and make your bed").[6]

Brigid's procession

In Ireland and Scotland, a representation of Brigid would be paraded around the community by girls and young women. Usually, it was a doll-like figure known as a Brídeóg (also called a 'Breedhoge' or 'Biddy'). It would be made from rushes or reeds and clad in bits of cloth, flowers, or shells.[6][39] In the Hebrides of Scotland, a bright shell or crystal called the reul-iuil Bríde (guiding star of Brigid) was set on its chest. The girls would carry it in procession while singing a hymn to Brigid. All wore white with their hair unbound as a symbol of purity and youth. They visited every house in the area, where they received either food or more decoration for the Brídeóg. Afterward, they feasted in a house with the Brídeóg set in a place of honour, and put it to bed with lullabies. When the meal was done, the local young men humbly asked for admission, made obeisance to the Brídeóg, and joined the girls in dancing and merrymaking.[6] In many places, only unwed girls could carry the Brídeóg, but in some both boys and girls carried it.[40]

In some areas, rather than carrying a Brídeóg, a girl took on the role of Brigid. Escorted by other girls, she went house-to-house wearing 'Brigid's crown' and carrying 'Brigid's shield' and 'Brigid's cross', all of which were made from rushes.[41] The procession in some places included 'strawboys', who wore conical straw hats, masks and played folk music; much like the wrenboys.[41] Up until the mid-20th century, children in Ireland still went house-to-house asking for pennies for "poor Biddy", or money for the poor. In County Kerry, men in white robes went from house to house singing.[42]

Brigid's cross
A Brigid's cross

In Ireland, Brigid's crosses (pictured) were made on St Brigid's Day. A Brigid's cross usually consists of rushes woven into a four-armed equilateral cross, although there were also three-armed crosses.[43][44] They were often hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brigid and for protection against fire, lightning, illness and evil spirits.[41] The crosses were generally left there until the next St Brigid's Day.[6] In western Connacht, people would make a Crios Bríde (Bríd's girdle); a great ring of rushes with a cross woven in the middle. Young boys would carry it around the village, inviting people to step through it and so be blessed.[6]

Weather divination

Snowdrops in the snow

The festival was traditionally a time of weather divination, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens may be a forerunner of the North American Groundhog Day. A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:

Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes 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 would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.[46] At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.[46]


Today, St Brigid's Day and Imbolc is observed by Christians and non-Christians. Some people still make Brigid's crosses and Brídeogs or visit holy wells dedicated to St Brigid on 1 February.[47] 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 ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year. There are folk music sessions, historical talks, film screenings, drama productions and cross-making workshops. The main event is a torchlight parade of 'Biddy groups' through the town.[48][49] Since 2009 a yearly "Brigid of Faughart Festival" is held in County Louth. This celebrates Brigid as both saint and goddess, and includes the long-standing pilgrimage to Faughart as well as music, poetry and lectures.[50]

The "Imbolc International Music Festival" of folk music is held in Derry at this time of year.[51] In England, the village of Marsden, West Yorkshire holds a biennial "Imbolc Fire Festival" which includes a lantern procession, fire performers, music, fireworks, and a symbolic battle between giant characters representing the Green Man and Jack Frost.[52]

More recently, Irish embassies have hosted yearly events on St Brigid's Day to celebrate famous women of the Irish diaspora and showcase the work of Irish female emigrants in the arts.[53] In 2022, Dublin hosted its first "Brigit Festival", celebrating "the contributions of Irish women" past and present through exhibitions, tours, lectures, films and a concert.[54]

From 2023, "Imbolc/St Brigid's Day" will be a yearly public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, to mark both the saint's feast day and the seasonal festival.[5] A government statement noted that it will be the first Irish public holiday named after a woman, and "means that all four of the traditional Celtic seasonal festival will now be public holidays".[5]


Imbolc Festival in Marsden, West Yorkshire, 2007

Imbolc or Imbolc-based festivals are held by some Neopagans. As there are many kinds of Neopaganism, their Imbolc celebrations can be very different despite the shared name. Some try to emulate the historic festival as much as possible. Other Neopagans base their celebrations on many sources, with historic accounts of Imbolc being only one of them.[55][56]

Neopagans usually celebrate Imbolc on 1 February in the Northern Hemisphere and 1 August in the Southern Hemisphere.[57][58][59][60] Some Neopagans celebrate it at the astronomical midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox (or the full moon nearest this point). In the Northern Hemisphere, this is usually on 3 or 4 February.[61] Other Neopagans celebrate Imbolc when the primroses, dandelions, and other spring flowers emerge.[62]

Celtic Reconstructionist

Celtic Reconstructionists strive to reconstruct ancient Celtic religion. Their religious practices are based on research and historical accounts,[63][64] but may be modified slightly to suit modern life. They avoid syncretism (i.e. combining practises from different cultures). They usually celebrate the festival when the first stirrings of spring are felt, or on the full moon nearest this. Many use traditional songs and rites from sources such as The Silver Bough and The Carmina Gadelica. It is a time of honouring the goddess Brigid, and many of her dedicants choose this time of year for rituals to her.[63][64]

Wicca and Neo-Druidry

Wiccans and Neo-Druids celebrate Imbolc as one of the eight Sabbats in their Wheel of the Year, following Midwinter and preceding Ostara. In Wicca, Imbolc is commonly associated with the goddess Brigid and as such, it is sometimes seen as a "women's holiday" with specific rites only for female members of a coven.[65] Among Dianic Wiccans, Imbolc is the traditional time for initiations.[66]

See also


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Further reading

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