The time of Imbolc
In the Ancient Calendar Samhain may be a celebration and closure of the past year and a fresh start for the year ahead. After 3 months of keeping the hearth stoked and the winter flame alive we now wake up to what is called Imbolc a time of midwifery, a bith of new things with a helping hand.
Its when the first lambs are born and skipping and when the snowdrops first open, well they do in Ireland as there always seems to be a brief temperature boost now.
In ancient Ireland this was the time of most human births too. Way back in times before central heating, lighting, food imports for winter and freezer food storage winter births and caring for infant children through winter was dangerous. The lively fire festival of Beltaine in May used to be regarded as the sexual passion and conceiving time to time births to be at this time. Brighid was regarded as nurse who arrived to care and protect during the last three months of pregnancy through the harshest months of the year. She was then seen to be present at birth and for the birth to bless health and protection for the year ahead and beyond.
There are some lovely traditions for this time that are very easy to set up and be part of.
What day is Imbolc?
The complication is when to be part of the tradition. Its not a thing to worry about too much because lambs are not all born on the same day and snowdrops do not all open on the same day too.
The Roman Calendar has forced the honouring of Brigid to be on February 1st.
The ancient Celts, and older, honourned the night of the full moon closest to what we call scientifically call today the "Spring Cross Quarter Day". This is the exact midpoint of time between Yule, the midwinter solstice, and Oestra, the spring equinox.
This year the lunar Imbolc is close, Friday, February 2nd
Preparing for Brigid and Imbolc
The basic and most pleasant tradition, I feel, is the honouring of Brighid or Brigid through a meditation by an open fire in your home before you retire to bed. If you do not have an open fire in your home assemble an alter with white candles, one being taller than the rest. Do not let the main candle go out, even if it means staying up all night.
Before this, if it is a clear night, watch the moon rise. It is said that this is what guides Brigid to us for this night. In Ireland, Scotland and parts of elsewhere, this is the night the visiting whooper swans from the Artic start their journey back home after breeding. These are the same whooper swans that arrive during the night of the full moon near Samhain in late October or early November. It is said these swans are the spirit of Brigid. During this full moon in Ireland and Scotland it is possible to catch a V formation of swans starting to head home.
Oh, and before the sun even sets, and especially before the moon rises, natural cloth or ribbons of wool, cotton or linen should be hung outside on your windows, doors, tree, whatever you feel is right. This tradition is for the passing Brighid to weave her spell into the cloth and protect your home for the year to come. If possible this cloth should be red and never of man made fibres.
Beside the Hearth
Back beside the fire a choice has to be made. Some feel that this meditation, which can and often extends through the night, is exclusive to women, mothers and their daughters. If the choice is given for men of the home to join in the men have to give total respect to the women, the spirit of women and shine the feminine energies within themselves. It is not a time for inviting men outside of your home to join you.
This meditation, which can include quietness, Brigid guided stories, songs and poems of Brigid and nature and even wishes and prayers around the spirit of Brighid, healing, protection, and yields of abundance may be shared.
If men of the house are present and the whole household retires to bed the reed Brigid crosses of the past year are burned, the new cross or crosses are hung over the hearth and the man puts out the fire and levels the ashes with the aid of a rowan branch. This closing of fire and hanging of new Brigid crosses is a Samhain tradition in some areas but is now more common at Imbolc. Personally I feel its is more suited to Samhain. Either way, it is then the purpose of the man who closed the fire to inspect it the following morning to see if the mark of a webbed foot is present. If so, it means that Brigid, in the image of a swan, visited and blessed the house and family. The way this is actually conducted is very similar to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I will say no more :-)
Caring for the Brideog Doll
The tradition just presented is probably the oldest tradition but there's another strong tradition that is probably closer linked to the Celtic Christian Brigid, and this is one favoured by most women. It can include the burning of old Brigid reed crosses and hanging new crosses but the most important part of this women only tradition is the Brideog doll. This doll is also made from reeds, dressed in a white dolly dress and affixed to this is a crystal, usually quartz. Before dark, and especially before moonrise,
Its also very important for the Brideog doll to be made by an unmarried women who has never had children. By tradition these dolls were made only by virgins but today there is a little broader allowance of girls and women that qualify.
Equally important is for the men of the household to leave the home before sunset and especially before moonrise and never return until after sunrise, so they had better make arrangements to be elsewhere beforehand. Some homes relax this rule by ensuring that just part of their home is totally out of bounds for men from sunset until sunrise. This is where the wedding tradition of men not being allowed to see the bride in her dress until she reaches the church alter at the time of marriage. Likewise, the men should never see the reed or corn dolly of Brigid until after sunrise the following morning. Interestingly, by the same tradition, in ancient times when this was a time of human births men were not allowed to be present at births until the baby was born. Birth was supposed to be a joint experience of the mother and the midwife, the human nurse of Brigid, with nobody else present.
With the dressed doll of Brigid in a bed of reeds the ladies of the home would stay up all night to keep the fires and the candles burning. When the sun rises the men of the home knock on the door and ask for permission to enter. At first they must plead humbleness to the Brigid doll and then to each of the women of the house. The women then serve and prepare breakfast for the men in exchange for their respect and humbleness.
After breakfast, the young daughters of the home take the Brigid doll around to neighbours and the tradition continues like trick or treat at Halloween with the daughters asking each house to ask what the doll's name is and to accept gifts of nuts, fruit etc. Today, this visiting ceremony is usually converted into a fund-raiser for a local need or cause.
After or during the time the daughters share their doll with neighbours many people congregate around their local Holy Well, and many of the Irish Holy Wells are dedicated to Brighid. Today people will travel miles to get to a Holy well specially dedicated to Brighid. A similar meditation to the fireside meditation is shared around the well and water from the well is sprinkled on all present as a blessing.
This well tradition is important because Imbolc is in the middle of the time that Sun is in Aquarius. The Aquarius symbol is currently either flowing water of life or a water-bearer pouring a pot of water of life. A more ancient symbol of Aquarius is Brighid passing water either from a cauldron or pot or even from herself but always to give life. The shared water sprinkling beside a well is receiving the tradition taught by that ancient Aquarius symbol.
So what about the "real" Imbolc, the solar Imbolc, the precise time of the midpoint?
This, I feel, is a time to honour Imbolc more as a time of nature than as a spirit of Brighid. This is a time to leave the home before sunrise and journey to a sacred place for the solar Imbolc sunrise. In Ireland, so far I have found the most dramatic spot to be Cairn L at Loughcrew. There is a free standing quartz standing stone that lights up like a torch for a few minutes at the point of sunrise, as long as the sky is clear. See my blog for Samhain when the same phenomena happens and you can see photos there. The most popular sacred site for Imbolc sunrise today is the Mound of The Hostages at Tara Hill in Co. Meath.
With the current tense political challenge protesting about the M3 motorway being built near Tara Hill I expect this site to be very, very busy this year. If you would like to join me for a quieter Imbolc sunrise at Loughcrew, please email me quickly.
Also, I prefer to delay the Holy Well blessing tradition until the solar Imbolc morning, which this year, 2007, is Sunday, February 4th.
And my own example
Personally, I will let Feb 1st slide but will probably cheat by not making my own Brigid crosses but trying to buy some somewhere. I hear that Eithne Quirke, wife of wonderful Sligo storyteller Michael Quirke has made some. They are at Wine Street, Sligo town, Ireland, so pop along yourselves, chat to Micheal, check out his incredible carvings as well as Eithne's Brigid crosses and dolls. I do believe the dolls were made by her yet unmarried and without child daughter so all is well there.
Feb 2nd, I do not and probably will not have any ladies present living in my home so I will be by my turf fire hearth honouring and humbling to the wonderful ladies in my life present and in spirit.
Feb 4th, I will be out and about, hopefully sharing a sunrise as a special sacred place with one or two people followed by a blessing at a holy well.
So I wish you all a wonderful passing of Imbolc.
Let me know if you wish to share solar Imbolc with us at sunrise Feb 4th
Brigid Wells in Ireland
Meanwhile, these are perhaps the most important Brigid Wells in Ireland.
Most will have their big mass on Feb 1st, some on Feb 2nd
Tully, Co. Kildare; (just outside Kildare town)
Faughart, Co. Louth;
Dunteer, Co. Louth;
Marlerstown ,Co. Louth;
Outeragh parish, Co. Leitrim
Inismagrath parish, Co. Leitrim;
Killinagh parish, Co. Cavin; (well dry, but important healing stones)
Ardagh, Co. Longford;
Uisneach, Co. Westmeath; (near the pub)
Kilranelagh parish, Co. Carlow;
Liscannor, Co. Clare;
Buttevant, Co. Cork;
Castlemanger, Co. Cork;
There's also a lovely well in Co. Meath I often visit on the R125 Dunshauchlin (on M3 south of Tara) to Swords Road. I have misplaced my ordnance survey map of that area so I am unable to give nearest townland or village and I cannot find it on the web. If you travel east along the R125 from Dunshauchlin its well signposted on the road, but I cannot even remember if its before or after Ratoath.