Imbolc is a celebration of the Celtic Goddess Brighid. For this reason, the holiday was always a strange one for me before coming to Druidry. When I first started out on the path of Paganism, I considered myself Wiccan and tried my best to form relationships with Greek and Egyptian deities. I was reluctant to delve into Celtic mythology because of the strange names. (What an ignorant and lazy youth I was!) As a result, the Wiccan adoption of Imbolc was foreign for me. I knew little of Brighid and it felt wrong to celebrate a Celtic holiday while applying it to different cultures, different religions, and different Gods all together. Imbolc wouldn’t make sense to me until I grew up a little and finally heard the call of the Irish Gods – in particular Brighid.
Now Imbolc is a holiday I look forward to. It is my lady’s special day; a day when I can dote upon her and thank her for all that she does for me through a large ritual.
Brighid is interesting in that she is both a Goddess and a Saint. Celtic Christians adopted her as a saintly figure, thus preserving many of her traditions. Being a Pagan, I am most interested in her as a Goddess but I appreciate the glimpses of ancient lore provided to us through the writings of Christian monks. She shows up in every Celtic nation, albeit with a different but similar name (Freeman 47). To the Irish, she is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She is the daughter of the Dagda (47), wife of Bres, and mother of Ruadan (Cath Maie Tuired). She is “a goddess of healing, midwifery, blacksmithing, poetry and fire” (Myers 46). There are also references to her acting as a Goddess of “dying, weaving, and brewing,” and to her protection over farm animals (Freeman 47). Considering these, I think of her as a patroness of art and creativity.
Her festival, which falls on February 1st (Freeman 46), celebrates the first lactation of sheep as they give birth to lambs (46). Thus Imbolc is a time of renewal and birth. In addition to the milk, Brighid’s association with fire probably played a vital role in her rituals. Flame keepers in Kildare guarded and tended to a sacred flame in her honor. Supposedly, this particular cult was for women only (Freeman 49). The tradition, after having been stopped by the Church for years, was rekindled and there are numerous flame keeping circles today (50). Many flame keepers, such as myself, pay special attention to their patroness on Imbolc.
There are numerous traditions surrounding Imbolc, many having to do with fertility and healing. Some people made brìdeag (little Bride) dolls in honor of her. There was a whole ceremony associated with it, as the doll was brought into the house, welcomed, and placed in a special bed (Freeman 55-56). It was also believed that the Goddess herself travelled through the land on her holiday. It was believed that she blessed her people and the farm animals. Some would put out a rag, believing that she would touch and fill it with healing powers. The next morning, it was believed to have been transformed into the brat Bríde (Brighid’s mantle). It was thought that the mantle would aid in labor of both humans and animals (Freeman 63). People also crafted Brigit’s crosses out of rushes and hung them in their homes for protection (64). In addition to these traditions, the more practical ritual of churning butter was said to have taken place on Imbolc thus linking Brighid, again, to dairy animals (63). Many people still follow these traditions today.
Imbolc is a special holiday to me now that I’ve started to form a close bond with Brighid and my Celtic ancestors. I hope to one day practice some of the old traditions in my own house with my own family. In such an industrialized society where farm animals are too often treated like machines rather than sentient beings, I feel that, even if someone doesn’t feel a connection to Brighid, they can still take the day to remember where their dairy products come from. When I was a young Wiccan, I seemed to have missed this crucial point. If I have children, I would like to set aside Imbolc as a time to honor Brighid and her beloved livestock. I can see us making dolls, mantles, or crosses, and perhaps making butter, eating cheese, and meditating on rebirth and where our food comes from. As usual, the holidays should remind us of our ties with the land because, unfortunately, we often forget.
On February 3rd, 2008, I lead an Imbolc ritual for the Mohawk Valley Pagan Network. I was really nervous about leading, especially as the majority of the Pagan alliance is Wiccan. Most have not had any prior experience with ADF liturgy. In the end, only six other people came. I was kind of relieved to lead in front of a smaller group of people. As they chatted, I set up. The ritual was held in a member’s house in Utica, NY, but was open to anyone who happened to search for us.
Since it was an Imbolc ritual, the deity of honor was Brighid. I brought a doll that I had made to represent Brighid. She stands on my altar as a statue. Also on the altar was a representation of the Bile, a large cauldron with some water, a candle, a small cauldron to collect matches, a pitcher of oil, and a pitcher of water. I placed a special bowl in the south for the outsiders.
The ritual itself went smoothly! I’d been going over it all day and meditating so that I would calm down. The process was worth it. I was amazed at how poised I was in front of everyone. I felt like a real priestess – like a real Druid. I credit the smoothness, in part, to the pre-ritual briefing I did. I sat everyone down and explained the purpose of the ritual. I went through the format and handed out some parts. We sang through the chants as well. I explained that offerings would be made at a specific time and that I would invite everyone to come forward with a gift for Brighid. I ended the briefing by asking if anyone had questions.
Everyone was enthusiastic about participating. My boyfriend, who is usually quite happy just to stand and listen, made offerings to the Nature Spirits. It meant a lot to me. When we got to the section for offerings to be made, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people had brought gifts! One woman read a poem about a fairy. Another gave a word of love. A third gave milk and coins. I gave a doll I had made for Brighid.
There was one small mistake in the ritual, but no one seemed to realize it. I had meant to do the Two Powers meditation before calling the Kindreds, but I got a bit absent-minded and had to do it after to avoid ruining the flow of the ritual. I don’t think it mattered that much, in retrospect. The Kindreds were honored, after all. I also omitted drawing an omen. In the ritual briefing, I explained the tradition, but also confessed that I don’t feel proficient enough with any divination tools to perform this part of the ritual. I decided that if the house erupted in flames, it would be obvious that the Kindreds were upset with something! I would, however, like to practice with a divination method so that I can incorporate it into future rituals.
After the ritual, we gathered in the dining room to share food and chat-chat. Everyone was pleased with the rite. This was a huge relief to me. There was a sense that I had crossed an important threshold in the Pagan community – I had led a public, albeit small, ritual. I’m sure it will be the first of many.