Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Ellen Evert Hopman, author of Priestess of the Forest, The Druid Isle, and the forthcoming Priestess of the Fire Temple.
As a Celtic Reconstructionist Druid I am always interested in the practices of the ancient Celts. I read about them, write about them and then put them into practice, as best I can. It’s my own small effort to keep the traditions alive and to pass them along for future generations.
The Festival of Imbolc is the next great Fire Festival in the cycle of the Celtic year. It is essentially a milk festival in honor of the lactation of the ewes who under natural conditions don’t give milk until just before they give birth. It is generally celebrated around February 1, but I have discovered that here in New England the sheep lactate about February 15.
For the ancient Celts Imbolc, or Oimelc, was a time to celebrate. They did not have supermarkets to go to for milk and there were months when no milk was available. The re-appearance of milk was a cause for rejoicing and to celebrate with a milk feast.
Imbolc was a festival of girls, something our culture has completely forgotten. The girls of the village would make a “Bride doll” out of straw, symbolizing the Goddess Brighid (Irish) or Bride (Scottish), out of the last sheaf of the previous year’s grain harvest, which they would carry from house to house. In this way they brought the blessings of Bride and of the fertility of the last year’s harvest, to every home. The girls collected cakes, bread, and butter as they went.
When they were done they would put the doll into a bed of rushes by a hearth. A stick of birch called a “slachdan” was placed in the bride doll’s hands. Brighid or Bride was the summer face of the Winter Hag or Cailleach, She who controls the weather. The wand symbolized her magical ability to influence storms and climate.
The girls would dance and sing until dawn and in the morning the ashes of the hearth were examined to see if Bride had left her footprint. If no foot print was found, an offering had to be made at a place where three streams met, for luck.
The men folk celebrated by preparing for the first plowing; the plow and other agricultural tools were blessed with a sprinkling of whisky and fields were “sained,” or purified, by carrying a lit torch around the boundaries.
Weather omens were taken; good weather at Imbolc meant winter would continue, but if a snake or hedgehog was seen to emerge from its hole that meant that winter was on the wane (this is the origin of Groundhog Day). Rain at Imbolc meant a good summer growing season was ahead.
Special crosses were woven out of reeds on Imbolc Eve. These crosses were equal armed (not the Latin cross with the longer base) and symbolized the sun. They were sacred to the Goddess Brighid, a Fire Goddess. Once finished, the crosses were hung in house and barn. In the Highlands these crosses were also made before weddings and placed under the mattress to ensure fertility.
A “Bride’s Girdle” was made of straw rope, nine feet long. The rope was tied at the ends to make a circle through which each family member would step (women sometimes pulled it over their head). Three solar crosses were tied to the rope.
A Brat Bhríde or Brighid’s mantle was placed outside on the eve of Imbolc, to receive the Goddess’s blessings. The cloak would be placed over sick people or animals throughout the year. A bit of butter and an oat cake or a sheaf of grain were left on the doorstep to feed Brighid’s donkey as she passed by.
The Monday after the festival offerings were left for the Fairies, because by tradition they move house on the first Monday after every Fire Festival and are in need of refreshment. Appropriate offerings included mashed potatoes with butter, oatmeal with butter or cream, bread and honey, and possibly a wee dram of whiskey or milk with whiskey added.
You can learn more about this festival and all the Fire Festivals through my books: Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey, The Druid Isle, and Priestess of the Fire Temple: A Druid’s Tale. These are a trilogy of novels that incorporate traditional Celtic beliefs and practices.