What Is Imbolc And Why Do People Celebrate It?
Posted on February 02 2017
As time moves forward, larger numbers of people become interested in their family history. Many people trace this history back hundreds of years, to even pre-Christian times, when the Roman Empire was becoming the Holy Roman Empire.
While most people aren't able to directly trace their family history to that time period, many people can at least trace their ethnic history that far. Because of that, many people are becoming interested in neo-paganism. This is a catch-all term for religious beliefs that come from the spiritual practices of non-Christian people through history.
Many of the neo-pagans in the United States follow some flavor of European belief, be it Celtic, Norse, or something along those lines. Whatever the specifics, most neo-pagan practices in the U.S. celebrate a festival called Imbolc. But what is this festival? What is it supposed to be celebrating?
What Is Imbolc?
Imbolc (which is also spelt Imbolg, and pronounced i-MOLG) is a festival holiday celebrating the coming of spring. It's Gaelic in origin, meaning it comes from the area of Ireland and the areas of Europe once held by the Gauls.
Being a celebration of spring, it was traditionally held on February 1st (according to the modern calendar, in any case!), the date between the winter equinox (denoting the middle of winter) and the spring equinox (which marks the middle of spring). It is also said to have been a celebration of the Gaelic Goddess Brigid, which is why it became celebrated as Saint Brigid's Day when the area became Christianized.
In honor of Brigid, celebrators would weave Brigid's Crosses, small cross patterns woven out of reeds and plants. They would also make a doll as an effigy of the Goddess, and would take it from home to home so as to ensure the Goddess visited each one. Of course, it wasn't just a celebration day in which people wove plants and made dolls! There were a number of other customs followed during Imbolc!
Other Imbolc Traditions
Because Brigid was the Goddess of home and hearth, there were a number of rituals that were performed in honor of upkeep of the home. As an example, there were special feasts cooked, in honor of the homestead and as a celebration of the continued health and well being of its people. There was also a special cleaning ritual, to sweep out the debris of the winter and allow the new spring to come in.
Because of Brigid's connection with the hearth fire, there were a number of divination rituals that were performed. People would also light candles and create ritual fires, sometimes even bonfires, as they honored the Goddess. It was a time of renewal and light, chasing away the cold and dark of the winter and bringing in the warmth and light of spring.
Imbolc In Modern Days
These days, whether a person is Wiccan or Neo-Pagan Druid, if a person claims to be pagan then they probably celebrate Imbolc in some fashion. However, because of the diversity of the beliefs that get grouped together as "pagan", there can be a number of different ways that people celebrate it. Wiccans, for example, celebrate Imbolc as one of their Sabbats, the eight holidays marking the wheel of the seasons. Due to its connection with the Goddess Brigid, it is sometimes considered a female-centric holiday, and will include rituals performed by the female members of the coven.
Celtic Reconstructionists, by contrast, tend to celebrate Imbolc in a way that's as close to the same as we know the ancient Celts to have celebrated it. Historical records vary, due to the ancient Celtic tradition of passing on history orally, but they try to ensure that they're following as closely as possible.
At the end of the day, Imbolc is little more than a festival to celebrate the coming of spring. Winter is often long and harsh, especially in northern Europe, and it pays to have a town celebration to help ease any lingering tension.
But when a town celebrates, they tend to celebrate in tandem. Honoring a God or Goddess was one of the ways a town came together, and in modern times it's no different. The people who celebrate Imbolc are simply celebrating the coming of spring, renewing their own mind and spirit from the cold of winter, and coming together to honor a shared belief.