“Born from winter dreaming, life stirs and the first tender shoots emerge from the earth. As the wheel turns, we feel the promise of spring and the dawning of a new beginning”
The days are getting incrementally longer and the light of spring is glimmering provocatively at the end of winter's long, dark tunnel, Imbolc is a Celtic/Pagan Festival marking winter's retreat and the approach of spring. Imbolc literally translates as “in the belly” – a reference to the potential for new life, held within the belly of the Great Mother - life is stirring and the land is awakening.
Imbolc tradititionally falls on 1st February and is the time of year our ancestors would have taken weather omens; good weather at Imbolc meant winter would continue, rain meant a good summer growing season was ahead and if a hedgehog was seen emerging from its hole it meant winter was on the wane – this is the origin of the American “Groundhog Day”!
In days gone by stores of food would be running low at this time of year, fire rituals would be performed to ensure a good growing season and to increase the power of the returning sun. Families would celebrate having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter and it was around this time many children were likely to be born, the mothers of whom were impregnated at Beltane – the Celtic celebration of fertility. This time also signified the reappearance of milk, our predecessors didn’t have supermarkets and will have been without milk and dairy for many months, so this was a cause for celebration and rejoicing. Another Celtic word for Imbolc is Oimelc which means “ewe’s milk” or "in milk" – with the onset of lambing the ewes started to produce milk and flow of milk heralded the return of the life-giving forces of spring. Raw, ethically sourced milk is an extremely healthy food, packed with enzymes, good fats, vitamins, minerals and friendly gut bacteria, it would have been an invaluable source of nutrition after a long cold winter.
A Festival of Fire
Imbolc is one of the 8 pagan “Sabbats” and one of the 4 Celtic Fire Festivals which are closely attuned to the natural rhythms and cycles of nature. It is a festival of light reflecting the lengthening of the day and the promise of spring. The day is marked by lighting candles decorated with early flowers and greenery. In years gone by great bonfires were lit on hilltops to chase away the frost and to welcome in the warming sun and the spring. It is also the celebration of the goddess Brigid/Bridhe/Bridgit/Bride – she is a goddess of fire, the sun and the hearth representing the fire of creativity, the protective fire of the hearth and her fire wheel - the Brigid Cross. At Imbolc Brigid is pregnant with the “seed of the sun”, ripe with the promise of new life as the seeds deep within the earth begin to awaken at this time.
In Ireland the tradition of weaving the Brigid Cross is still very much alive. Nowadays it tends to be celebrated as “St Brigid’s Day” – Christianity has once again hijacked this much older festival, called it “Candlemas” and sainted a nun of the same name as the pagan goddess. Traditionally made from reeds the night before Imbolc, the cross is hung above the hearth as a symbol prosperity and luck for the coming year.
In Marsden, England a spectacular Fire Festival is held on the first Saturday of February, keeping the tradition of Imbolc alive. Spectators are treated to breath taking fire sculptures, a fire circus and a battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man to symbolise the triumph of spring over winter.
A Time for Purification
The week leading up to Imbolc is the origin of our modern day “Spring Cleaning”. Homes were whitewashed inside and out, swept, dusted and freed from cobwebs to make space for the activity and growth that comes with the spring season. Hearths were swept and fires lit honouring the flame of Brigid and the fire in the home was acknowledged for its gift of warmth throughout the winter. On an energetic level the living space was cleared of clutter and special incense burned to welcome in the energy of a fresh, new season. We can easily translate this special ritual into our current, everyday lives – clean out your wardrobes and drawers, get rid of anything you haven’t worn for a year, clear out the kitchen cupboards and ditch anything past its expiration date. Clean under the furniture, wash the curtains and do all those cleaning jobs that are normally put off – the energy of the season will definitely assist you. Generally the spring clean is done in the week leading up to Imbolc with a final cleansing rite done on the day. If you would like to make your own Imbolc incense you could try this beautiful traditional blend, evocative of a chilly winter night with hints of spring:
2 parts Cedar/Sandalwood
2 parts Frankincense
1 part Pine Resin
1 part Dragons Blood
1 part Orange Peel
½ part Dried Rose Petals
If you would like to add a little ritual to your incense blend you can focus on abundance, prosperity and anything you would like to achieve/manifest this coming year – you can state your intent out loud as you blend the herbs to charge up your incense as it burns.
Blissful Cleansing Bath
Another rite of Imbolc is to cleanse the body, mind and spirit – set the scene by lighting candles and playing some soft music if you wish. Make an Imbolc essential oil mix using a base oil and a few drops of traditional Imbolc oils/scents. Choose from; cinnamon, cedarwood, lavender, lemon, rosemary, jasmine or rose. Use 10 ml of base oil and mix in 5 drops of each of your 4 favourite Imbolc oils, add to the bath after you have run it and it’s at the right temperature, add some sea salt as this is great to draw out impurities, immerse yourself and relax!
Imagine any negative energy is being soaked away, focus on it being swept away from your body. Scrub your nails, your hair, behind your ears… anywhere you can think of and as the water drains, visualise it carrying away any negativity with it leaving you fresh and clean, psychically as well as physically.
A Feast of Fire
Known as the “Feast of Torches” or “Feast of Fire”, feasting at Imbolc is all about the dairy, with milk being poured into the earth in offering and thanks for a fertile crop to come. All things creamed and young cheeses such as cottage and cream cheese are the traditional fayre, with milk being honoured as the blessing of the season. This illustrates the difference in how we take our food for granted today, with eating seasonally now being promoted as a much healthier way to live. In our modern age there are many ways we can incorporate traditional foods, even if we are now dairy free. Promoting the growth of new life, seeds are high on the menu, as are root vegetables and all types of seeded breads and cakes. We also have delicious milk replacements nowadays which can be substituted into most classic Imbolc recipes.
Here’s our take on a beautiful vegetarian/vegan Imbolc feast:
The drinks were traditionally dairy based, in Cornwall they made a ritual drink from cider, mashed apples, honey and ewes milk. Spiced warmed wines, ales and ciders are very traditional as is hot chocolate - if you fancy a healthy vegan option then try our Vegan Superfood Hot Chocolate.
Glastonbury – the Brigid Connection
The connections to Brigid/Bride/Bridhe run very deep here on our sacred Isle of Avalon. “Bride’s Mound” is a small hill to the west of Glastonbury in an area called Beckery Island, Beckery possibly being derived from the Gaelic word “Becc-Eriu” meaning “Little Ireland”. In ancient times Bride’s Mound was one of two gateways into Glastonbury when it was still an island. Excavations of this site have shown there once stood a small chapel on what is believed to be an earlier non-Christian shrine. This chapel was first dedicated to Mary Magdalene and then to St Brigid when it probably became a convent. There are references to St Brigid visiting Glastonbury in 488 AD from both William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury, written circa 1340 AD and they report that she stayed for several years on the island called “Beokery”. There is a well-documented connection between people living on this site and in Ireland, legend has it that Brigid left her bell and embroidery tools here with tradition telling of a healing well and a perpetual fire on the mound like the one at Brigid’s convent in Kildare.
There is an Imbolc ceremony held each year at Bride's Mound with the pilgrimage beginning at the White Spring. Here, Brigid, Celtic Fire Goddess and guardian of sacred springs is honoured with a shrine to “Our Lady of Avalon” where The Brigid Flame perpetually burns.
The pilgrimage continues to the Chalice Well where there is a beautiful meditation at the well-head followed by a “conversation café” around the fire. At 1pm there is a walk to Bride's Mound with Serena Roney-Dougal: Rendevous at the White Spring, where the Red and White springs join - wear suitable clothing for muddy conditions and the walk ensues to Bride's Mound for a Sacred Fire Ceremony at 2.30pm.
In Tune with the Seasons
Moving with the Wheel of the Year and acknowledging each passing season for its gifts can allow us to be more fully present in each and every day. Winter becomes magical in its own right, with spring and summer appreciated more fully. In celebrating the passing of this particular “cross quarter” we honour the passing of winter and welcome the onset of spring – this can be very uplifting. Imbolc Blessings to one and all!
Deep in the belly
not yet formed
Slight movement waking,
promising of life to come,
in the dark
as yet unborn.
Manifesting, yet waiting,
the warming Earth
Poem by Deanne Quarrie
With Special Thanks to Geoff Billett for his beautiful photo of the Imbolc Ceremony on Bride's Mound:
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