Over the course of today and or/tomorrow, most Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere will be celebrated Imbolc (down under, it’s time for Lughnasadh).
Both Imbolc and Lughnasadh are what are often dubbed “Celtic fire festivals.”
Both names are Irish, and are the names by which the festivals were known in the early medieval period, but it is thought that the fire festivals were celibrated across the Celtic world.
The other two are Samhain and Beltane, and they all fall midway between a Solstice and an Equinox — hence their other generic name “cross-quarter days.”
Imbolc — also called Imbolg, and correctly pronounced “i-molk” — marks the transition between the deepest, darkest days of winter and the Spring Equinox.
It seems to derive from the Old Irish for “in the belly,” although a medieval glossary said it meant “ewe’s milk.” Either way, its association with the burgeoning new life of spring is clear.
It’s still cold. It’s still dark, but signs of spring are increasingly everywhere, from the trembling, delicate snowdrops, to the shivering catkins on the hazel and the buds on the blossom trees.
It is the time of the Maiden.
Not surprising that the saints most strongly associated with early February are Bridget and Agatha, Bridget — often now called by the Irish form of her name, Brigid — on the first, Agatha on the fifth.
It is Brigid who has become most associated now with Imbolc — though not the saint. The Goddess who lies behind her. The great Irish Brigid, so beloved in Ireland in pre-Christian times that instead of trying to eradicate her worship, the Christians turned her into a sixth-century saint.
She is equally revered among many modern Pagans, especially Wiccans and Druids.
Many Christians — particularly Catholics — still contend that the saint just happened to share the same name as Pagan Ireland’s favorite Goddess, that she just happened to found her monastery on the site of Bridget’s cult center in Kildare, and just happened to have a thing for fire, etc.
Similarly, the widespread nature of St. Bridget’s cult in England and Wales is often ascribed to the spread of the cult from Ireland when — although the form “Bridget” is Irish — her worship in the British Isles is probably much older; Bridget and the famous Brythonic Goddess Brigantia are almost
certainly the same deity.
The form Bridget developed from Brigitta, a Latinized form of the Medieval Irish Brigit and Brigid. It derives ultimately from the Common Celtic *brig-/brigant- “high,” or *briga- “might” and “power” combined with the Irish fem. suffix -ait. This has become Brighid in Modern Irish Gaelic. The variants Bríd and Bríde are also used.
In England and Wales, Bride and Bryde were also commonly used in the Middle Ages, surviving in place names such as Bridewell.
Bridie – an Anglicized form of Bríde — is not uncommonly heard in Pagan circles too.
Bridget is found as a given name in England from the fourteenth century. In Ireland it wasn’t actually used until the seventeenth; it was considered
too sacred for everyday use in previous centuries (so much for the saint just happening to share the Goddess’s name!).
In the nineteenth century, the pet-form Biddy was so common in Ireland that it became a nickname for an Irishwoman (in the same way Paddy was used for an Irishman). It has lost this meaning now, but “old biddy” is still used in Britain as a mild slang term for an old woman.
Many wonderful old traditions surround Imbolc and St Bridget’s. One of it’s other names — Candlemas — comes from the tradition of making and blessing candles at St Bridget’s; the connection between candles and Brigid’s fires is obvious.
In Ireland, the tradition of making a Brigid’s Bed has survived until modern time in some parts; women and girls make a corn dolly, and a bed for her to lie on beside the fire. They then keep a vigil on the the eve of St Bridget’s, and the men visit to pay Bridget their respect.
In the morning, the dolly is sometimes taken round the village from door-to-door, a bit like a guy on Bonfire Night in England.
Due to the believe that Brigid goes abroad on Imbolc eve, clothes are sometimes placed outdoors for her to bless as she passes.
Candles are often placed in all the windows to welcome her.
But probably best-known is the Brigid Cross, with it’s four spokes, it almost certainly is a vestige of the Pagan Celtic sun-wheel. Generally woven from straw or rushes, they are placed in the chimney as a protection against fire. Although the general tradition was that they were renewed each year, with the old burnt on Imbolc fire, old ones are not uncommonly found forgotten up the chimneys of old Irish houses.
A bright and blessed Imbolc, one and all!