“As the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens”
Around the beginning of February, many Wiccans will celebrate Imbolc, a midwinter festival halfway between the beginning of winter (the Winter Solstice) and the beginning of spring (the Spring Equinox) in March. It marks the literal center point of the dark half of the year.
The actual date of Imbolc varies amongst the many sects of Wicca, falling as early as January 29th and as late as February 3rd. But as with all proper Wiccan holidays, it begins the moment the sun sets and ends just before sunset on the following day.
Imbolc, (pronounced "IM-bulk" or "EM-bowlk"), also called Oimealg, ("IM-mol'g), by the Druids, comes from an Irish word that was originally thought to mean 'in the belly' although many people translate it as 'ewe's milk' (oi-melc). It is derived from the Gaelic word "oimelc" which means "ewes milk".
Imbolc was one of the cornerstones of the Celtic calendar. For the Celts, the success of the new farming season was of great importance. As winter stores of food were getting low Imbolc rituals were performed to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later. It is the time of Blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools.
It was the festival of the lactating sheep when herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders.
It is also the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. Brighid's snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather, (paradoxically, the origin of ‘Ground Hog Day’).
Akin to most Celtic festivals, the Imbolc celebrations centered around the lighting of fires. Fire was perhaps more important for this festival than others as it was also the holy day of Brighid (also known as Bride, Brigit, Brid) – the Goddess of fire, healing and fertility. The lighting of fires celebrated the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
For the Christian calendar, this holiday was reformed and renamed 'Candlemass' when candles are lit to remember the purification of the Virgin Mary. Various other names for this Greater Sabbat are Imbolgc Brigantia (Caledonni), Imbolic (Celtic), Disting (Teutonic, Feb 14th), Lupercus (Strega), St. Bridget's Day (Christian), Candlemas, Candlelaria (Mexican), The Snowdrop Festival, The Festival of Lights, or The Feast of the Virgin. The ancient Romans, Celts, Greeks, Chinese, and Native Americans all have had corresponding holidays at this time of the year.
On this Sabbat, the Maiden is honored, as the waiting Bride of the returning sun God. Before the Nordic influence, it was also the Sabbat in which the Celts saw the sun as being born anew. In Ireland it was, and still is, a special day to honor the Goddess Brid in her guise of bride. The modern Irish know this as St. Briget's Day, St. Briget being a vaguely disguised and Christianized version of the Pagan Goddess.
Celts would often create Straw Brideo'gas (corn dollies) from dried oat or wheat straw from the previous harvest, and placed in baskets with white flower bedding, as representations as brides, and set them in a place of honor within their homes. They were usually placed in cradles called Bride's Beds, and nuts, symbols of male fertility, were tossed in with them. Young girls then carry the Brideo'gas door to door, and gifts are bestowed upon the image from each household.
Later at the traditional feast, the older women make special acorn wands for the dollies to hold, and in the morning the ashes in the hearth are examined to see if the magic wands left marks as a good omen. Brighid's Crosses are fashioned from wheat stalks and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year.
Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and a besom is placed by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new. Candles – symbolic of the heat and light – are lit in profusion, and placed in each room of the house to honor the re-birth of the Sun, and often within a wreath, another symbol of the Wheel of the Year in this Sabbat.
Another traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plough. In some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden ploughed up. In other areas, the plough is decorated and then Whiskey – the ‘water of life’ – poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plough and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time.
Imbolc is still a special time for Pagans and Wiccans today. As people who are deeply aware of what is going on in the natural world, they recognize that there is strength in cold, as well as heat; death as well as life. The Horned God reigns over the Autumn and Winter and although the light and warmth of the world may be weak, he is still in his power.
For Wiccans, the holiday is a break from the gloom of winter. It is the day when spring begins to appear like the light at the end of a long tunnel, not really perceptible at first, but affecting the earth nonetheless. Though we can't see it through the cover of white, at Imbolc we know the spring bulbs have sent runners into the earth, that the ice on our lakes and rivers have begun to thin and move, and that the first of the young animals due in spring have been born.
Most feel that human actions are best when they reflect the actions of nature, so as the world slowly springs back into action, it is time for the small tasks that are neglected through the busy year.
Many Wiccans celebrate this holiday as a group by standing in a dark room, with one small candle flame lighting their way, each Wiccan then lights their candle from that flame, until everyone in the room is bathed in the great light of their community's bounty. Prayers are said for a gentle spring, and that stores of food and money, greatly depleted by the festivities of the winter solstice, last long enough to be supplemented by the first crops.
All Virgin and Maiden Goddesses are honored at this time and serve as the deities of Imbolc. These would include: Brighid, Aradia, Athena, Inanna, Gaia, and Februa, and Gods of Love and Fertility, Aengus Og, Eros, and Februus. During Imbolc the deities are still youthful and not yet joined as one through sacred marriage. They are innocent and fun-loving, and are waiting just as anxiously for spring as are we!
Symbols of Imbolc include Brideo'gas, Besoms, Brides, White Flowers, Candle Wheels, Brighid's Crosses, Priapic Wands (acorn-tipped), Ploughs, Grain Dollies, burrowing animals, and Ewes.
During Imbolc, some herbs which may be burned are Angelica, Basil, Bay Lauren, Benzoin, Blackberry, Celandine, Colts foot, Myrrh, and Tansy. Some may choose to burn incenses such as Basil, Bay, Cinnamon, Myrrh, Violet, Vanilla, and Wisteria.
Heather, Iris, Violets, and all yellow and white flowers may be used as altar decorations.
Traditional Foods of Imbolc include Pumpkin seeds, Sunflower seeds, Poppy seed cakes, muffins, scones, and breads, all dairy products, Peppers, Onions, Garlic, Raisins, Spiced Wines and Herbal Teas.
The colors representing Imbolc are White, Silver, Pink, Red, Yellow, Light Green, and Brown.
Stones which represent Imbolc are Amethyst, Blood Stone, Garnet, Ruby, Onyx, and Turquoise.
Rituals and activities celebrating Imbolc might include the making of candles, candle lighting, reading poetry and telling stories, gathering stone, snow hiking and searching for signs of spring, planting spring flowers, making of Brideo'gas and Bride's Beds, making Priapic Wands, decorating ploughs, feasting, and bonfires may be lit.
Here are a few suggestions for Imbolc activities, some of which can be incorporated into the Sabbat celebration or simply as something to make the day more special, especially for children.
Burn the Yule greens to send winter on its way.
Make the Bride's Bed using the Corn or Wheat Doll made the previous Lughnassadh. Dress the doll in white or blue with a necklace that represents the seasons. Lay it in a long basket adorned with ribbons; light white candles on either side of the basket, and say:
"Welcome the bride both maiden and mother;
rest and prepare for the time of the seed;
cleansed and refreshed from labors behind her;
with the promise of spring she lays before me."
Next morning, remove the dress and scatter the wheat outdoors (or if you use corn, hang it up in a tree for the squirrels and birds). This can be seen in terms of the Lady's recovery from the birthing bed and readiness to begin the turning of the seasons anew.
The Imbolc Corn Doll represents the mother nurturing her son, who will grow and become her husband. This is the earth and the sun, which is still weak but gaining in strength.
On Imbolc Eve, leave buttered bread in a bowl indoors for the faeries who travel with the Lady of Greenwood. Next day, dispose of it as the "essence" will have been removed.
Place three ears of corn on the door as a symbol of the Triple Goddess and leave until Ostara.
Light a white candle and burn sandalwood incense.
Cleanse the altar and equipment, do a self-purification rite with the elemental tools representing earth (salt) for body, air (incense) for thoughts; fire (candle flame) for will; and water (water) for emotions.
Make dream pillows for everyone in the family.
Create a Solar Cross from palm fronds, make enough to place one in each room of the house. Place a red pillar-style candle center to the front door; with palm crosses in hand, light the candle and open the door and say:
"We welcome in the Goddess and seek the turning
of the wheel away from winter and into spring."
Close the door, take up the candle and go to each room of the house and say:
"Great Lady enter with the sun and watch over this room!"
Leave a Solar Cross in the room and proceed thusly throughout your house. This is great for the kids as you can divide up the tasks for each to do - one can hold the palms, another can open doors, another can carry the candle, and so forth. The last room should be the kitchen and here you say:
"Mother of the earth and sun,
Keep us safe and keep us warm,
As over our home you extend your blessings."
Some of the information in this post originated from the following books and websites:
"Celtic Myth and Magick" - Edain McCoy
Activities from "Green Witchcraft" - Anne Moura (Aoumiel)
© 2013 Rosalind Scarlett