Imbolc (February 2) is the second of four high holy days in the Celtic year. Although it takes place amid cold and snow, it marks the beginning of spring, for the Celts believed all life begins in the darkness of the womb of the earth. It’s also the feast of the goddess Brigid, patroness of fire/forge, poetry/inspiration and the mysteries of hearth and home, including healing and childbirth. Step back in time with me to a cold February morn to get a glimpse of the way this feast may have been celebrated.
The morning star heralded the coming dawn as I made my way carefully up the icy path to sacred well, guided by the light of single taper. The pool was sheltered even in winter by the bare branches of an ash grove, which I pushed aside to make my ritual ablutions. My breath came little white puffs as I hurriedly washed my hands, feet and head in the freezing water, purifying and consecrating myself for the new cycle of work this day heralded. I left a small shiny stone and a handful of oats at the site as an offering before hurrying back to the village.
Brigid, bringer of spring, with her sacred cow and the fire of inspiration.
Dawn was just beginning to color the horizon with tendrils of pink, nearly matching my frozen fingertips, when I reached the village common. Many of the townsfolk were already gathered, their ploughs, scythes and other tools piled in the center, awaiting Brigid’s blessing. Once everyone had gathered, the chieftain’s daughter took up her place at the head of the pack, carrying in her arms a basket containing a small doll fashioned from rushes and dressed in a child’s dress, the Bride or symbol of the goddess Brigid. One by one, the mistress of each household came forth and placed in Bride’s bed a small length of cord, meant to absorb her healing power and bring good fortune to the family throughout the year. My mother was last.
As the sun began to rise, a bonfire was lit, and from it, each candle in the glimmering procession. These would be taken home to burn throughout the day and night so that Bride knew she was welcome in our homes. Slowly, the line of people moved forward, men banging their staffs upon the ground invoking Brigid to awaken the earth, women invoking her protection.
“Thrice be blessed, oh Shining One!” I shouted in my turn.
We winded our way from house to house, collecting offerings of eggs, cream and butter (dairy foods being symbolic of Brigid’s own sacred cow),rushes and even some seeds to be planted when the ground thawed. With each dwelling we passed, our ranks swelled, as did the light from our tapers, until I daresay you could see us from anywhere in the surrounding countryside.
We stopped when we reached the appointed spot, the underground den of a snake whose movements would divine the weather for the next moon.** Quietly, so as not to frighten the serpent, we chanted:
Brigid by Joanna Powell Colbert
“Today is the day of Bride. The serpent shall come from the hole, I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me. Blessed be Bride.”
The chant repeated dozens of times until finally she did emerge, slithering unperturbed into the brush amid cheers that the weather would be fair and spring was on its way.
Returning again to the village green, we collected our healing ribbons and tools and divided the offerings so that each family would have something for the candlelight feast to come. As we said our farewells and the ritual came to an end, I glanced at the bonfire, and for just a fleeting moment, thought I saw a fiery-haired face smiling back at me. Brigid was indeed with us.
**This practice is the origin of modern Groundhog Day. In Ireland, they had no snakes (nothing to do with St. Patrick), so the movements of a hedgehog were tracked instead.