Time: Sunset 31 January-sunset 2 February (31 July-2 August in the southern hemisphere)
Focus: New growth, melting the ice, bringing light into the darkness, the return of the Maiden Goddess
This was the festival of early spring when ewe's milk was first available after the long, cold winter and the first shoots might be seen in the still-frozen fields. One of the Celtic names for the pagan festival was Brigantia, named after Brighid, the Celtic Triple Goddess, here in her maiden aspect ending the rule of the old hag of winter. She was christianised as St Bridget of Kildare, whose day is 1 February. Brigantia was also the name of a Gallic Earth goddess.
Blazing torches were carried deosil around the still-frozen fields and sacred fires were lit on hilltops to attract the new Sun. It is said that Brighid went around the fields with her white wand of fire, melting the snows and stirring new life, so it is primarily a festival of light. In both pagan and Christian traditions it has involved the lighting of candles and torches, to restore warmth and light into the world.
The maiden goddess Brighid in myth mated with Lugh the young god of light and so, traditionally, a virgin was chosen to mate with the chief of the tribe to ensure the coming of new life to the land. It is said that, like Lugh, he embraced Cailleach, the old hag of winter who was thus transformed in his arms into the Maiden Goddess.
In medieval times, a girl representing Brighid would be brought to the door of the main house or farmstead of a village with cows and a cauldron, symbols of plenty. Her straw bridal bed would be created close to the fire, adorned with ribbons and blessed with honey. Milk, the first available after the winter, was central to the festival as a symbol of renewed fertility. It was poured on the bed of straw. Workers from the farms and villages would approach the bride bed, and in return for a coin, a posy of flowers or tiny gift would receive her kiss, bestowing blessing on their trade and homes.
In churches, the candles that were to be used for the coming year in ceremony were purified on the feast of Candlemas on 1 February. Each person was given a blessed candle that acted as protector of the home against storms, fire and flood and defended cattle and crops against evil.
The energies of this seasonal festival are good for the regeneration of any areas devastated by neglect or pollution, for melting rigid attitudes that may have led to conflicts between counties or ethnic groups, and the isolation and alienation of disadvantaged groups through prejudice. They are especially helpful for the welfare of infants, small children and animals.
On a personal level, these gentle rituals can bring mental, emotional and spiritual regeneration, especially if you have been hurt or lack confidence. If you carry them out, by Easter you will be filled with new optimism and a sense of direction and hopefully any new relationships, whether for love or friendship, initiated at Imbolc will be slowly but gradually developing.
Traditionally, those celebrating this festival would light candles and place them at each window of their houses on 31 January or Candlemas Night, 1 February, and leave them to burn down completely. For safety reasons, nowadays, however, many people use the type of electric candle sets that are popular in windows in Swedish homes before Christmas.
A single, large, white candle was also lit in or near the family hearth as a centrepiece for the family feast on the same evening to welcome back the Maiden energies and to bring blessings on home and family. The traditional Brighid straw and beribboned crosses were woven and passed though the candle flame, thereafter serving as amulets to keep homes, animals and barns from harm. These crosses, whose four arms extend at different points around a square centre, are still dedicated to St Brighid and are still kept in homes for protection.
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