Imbolc & The Rites of Women: The Midwinter Festival of Lights

Across the world, for thousands of years, our ancestors celebrated the turn of the seasons through sacred feasts and plenty of magic.  Marking the astrological alignments of the sun and moon, theses activities had one central purpose – to harmonize human activity with the great cycles and forces of nature, thereby ensuring fertility, abundance and good harvest.

Sounds pretty good to me. That’s why once again, Gather is preparing to celebrate one of the most beautiful and ancient of these “holy-days” – the Midwinter Festival of Lights. Known as Lupercalia to the Romans, Sul-Minerva to the ancient Brits, or Imbolc or Brigid’s Day to the ancient Celts, this “cross quarter day” occurred halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox (somewhere between January 31st to February 4th). It is believed to be dated as far back as the Neolithic when megalithic chambers marked the light of the rising sun on this day.

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Imbolc was when Brigid, the Celtic maiden goddess in the form of the sun, spread her green cloak across the land, releasing it from the icy grips of winter. Brigid represents the light half of the year which banishes the dark, so all forms of light, heat and illumination were sacred to her. So it’s no wonder that Imbolc was marked with bonfires, blazing hearths, lit candles and a feast of sacred foods symbolizing the power of the sun. This was a high time for magic, for ritually burning off and releasing the old year and nourishing the new.

Brigid’s worship was absorbed by the Church where she became known as St.Brigid, but she is one of the few goddesses whose honorary rituals still survive today. (This is likely due to the fact that neither the Romans or Christianity never quite managed to fully colonize Ireland.)

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This fascinating article tells how in Ireland and Scotland these historical traditions are overwhelmingly concentrated on the traditionally “feminine” aspects of life, domesticity and fertility… It was customary for houses to be spick and span for the day, and housewives would open their cupboards and take stock of the supplies they had left. Many households would bring water from a well dedicated to saint Brìde and sprinkle it around the house, the farm buildings, fields, livestock and family members, invoking a blessing of the saint as they did so.”

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Top: Bridey Doll, Brigid Cross or Sunwheel Bottom:  St. Brigid’s Holy Well at Kildare

Today Brigid crosses (symbolizing the sun and the wheel of life) are still woven and hung over doors as protective talismans and Bridey Dolls (symbolizing Brigid) are still placed in cradles on the hearth on Imbolc Eve. The following day girls carry the Bridey Doll  from house to house, while adult women remained home to welcome the Brigid procession with an offering of oatcakes or barmbrack. Another custom was to gather a bundle of green rushes, and, standing with them in the hand on the threshold of the door, to invite St. Bridget to come in that night saying: Bridget, Bridget, come to my house, come to my house tonight, open the door to Bridget, and let Bridget come in.”

Imbolc is believed to be derived from the old Irish word for milk  “Oilmec”  and it referred to the time when impregnated ewes began to lactate the “new milk”  or “Oilmec” associated with purification. It customary to offer this sacred milk to Brigid by pouring it onto the earth to speed the return of green and fertility to the land. And today it is still made into special cheese and butter along with other magical ingredients associated with the sun (such as egg yolks and honey) for the Imbolc feast.

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In the past it was customary for women to dress in white (to honour the bride of the new year) as they gathered together at sundown to light sacred bonfires to purify the fields in preparation for the new year. These fires burned off the old year and invited in the fertilizing, life giving power of the new sun. Because Brigid was the goddess of smithcraft, poetry and inspiration, her fires symbolized inner sight and illumination, and many women practiced the arts of fire divination.

Then, returning home, hearths were lit, and lighted candles placed in each window to light Brigid’s way to their homes.  Gifts of food were presented to the goddess before the traditional Imbolc or Brigid’s Feast was served – see more on her sacred foods here.

I love the idea that these rituals of cleaning, cooking, crafting, and fire-lighting were once considered integral to the well-being of our community (and to nature herself). Today we’ve come to see such thinking as superstitious. After all, baking a cake and lighting a ceremonial candle isn’t going to causally affect the coming harvest. But still, as irrational as it is, something about these ancient customs speak to me. And I am not alone.

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Over the past four years, joined by our friends and wider community, Jennifer and I have hosted Imbolc events publicly as Gather, and personally in our homes. And whether we have woven fresh greenery & herbs into magical Imbolc candles, St. Brigid sun wheels, wreaths and floral crowns, created a wishing tree or cooked sacred Imbolc feast dishes – there has been one constant. A deep sense of reconnecting with something very old and sacred. And each year, the lighting of the candles on our ceremonial altar has caused many of our eyes to fill with tears.

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Perhaps this impulse to celebrate the waning of winter, the first stirrings of green, the warmth of lengthening days is a genetic memory. Worn deep into our psyche by generations of our foremothers is the faith that our intentions matter. That by ceremonially cleansing our homes, preparing special foods, and lighting oodles of candles, we can create an energy of blessing for ourselves, each other and our communities.

I don’t know exactly why I believe it, but I do.  And so once again, we are readying to harmonize our lives with the great cycles of nature and cook up some old world magic!  And I know that by doing so, we’ll feel fuller, light-hearted and happy – as if (mysteriously) we’ve accomplished something important.

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p.s.  If you’re looking for a little inspiration for your own magical celebration click here.

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

8 thoughts on “Imbolc & The Rites of Women: The Midwinter Festival of Lights

  1. Hello! A little under 11 months ago I wrote a chapter for a future book, which I feel is a definitive history on the ultimate meaning of Imbolg, which seems to center almost exclusively upon a “folk-logic”, as folklorist Maire MacNeill called it, between sowing seed for crops and the germination of seeds and the human process of insemination and childbirth. Each and every folk-tradition of Brighid, such as the Brighid’s bed and the Girdle of Brighod, all deal with the process of childbirth. Even candlelight seems to be an intimation with the light of day, which were kindled in birthing chambers; because ancient cultures knew that a newborn child emerges from the darkness of the woman into the light of day, just as a seed emerges from the darkness of the soil into the light of day. https://www.academia.edu/6746260/Rekindling_the_Rites_of_Imbolg

  2. After reading your blog I can reconnect with my dream last night 🙂 this morning I woke up happy to notice that I dreamt about a beautiful women with long hair threaded giving birth over a hill. I saw it all she was standing strong and grounded grabbing her baby with her own hands. It was an amazing dream, I now is about new beginnings and now I now better! I’m grateful for your sharing knowledge.

  3. Always lovely to see Brighid venerated for Imbolc. 🙂 What a beautiful ceremony you’ve shared with us. I wanted to note that, as Brighid’s name is from a Celtic language, it bears no connection to the word bride, or its definition, which derives from a Germanic source, which is noted here:
    https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-relationship-between-Brighde-of-Scotland-and-the-Goddess-Brigid-and-as-%E2%80%9CSaint-Bride%E2%80%9D-is-she-the-patron-of-Christian-marriage
    Your photos are stunning, thank you for sharing them!

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