The Confusion of Imbolc

The Confusion of Imbolc February 3, 2012

The Imbolc Ritual Altar by Rebecca Radcliff, CC license 2.0I’ve always found Imbolc to be a rather confusing holiday from a theological perspective.  Most sabbats have a pretty clear meaning, and that meaning is consistent no matter where you live.  Beltane is a fertility rite, Lammas is about the harvest, Samhain is about death, etc etc.  Of course you’ll always find people who want to “tweak” the meaning of a holiday, or find a different angle of approach to it, but generally the trappings will always remain the same.  With Imbolc, that’s not the case.

Up until last year I resided in Lansing Michigan, where our Imbolc rituals often revolved around melting snow in a large bowl.  In Michigan, Imbolc is not really the start of Spring, it’s the height of Winter, and should be celebrated as such.  As a recent transplant to the San Francisco Bay Area, Imbolc has taken on an entirely new meaning for me.  Unlike in Michigan, Imbolc really is the start of Spring out here.  It marks the start of the rainy season, and there are flowers blooming in my front yard.  Trees are budding, and all of the things I tend to associate with April are happening right now.  It’s exciting, but also alien, because the traditions which worked so well back in Michigan seem like they were tailored for an entirely different holiday.

Sabbats should be shaped around what’s actually going on in your natural world, and not about what went on in someone else’s natural world two thousand years ago.  Yes, to the Ancient Celts Imbolc was the start of Spring, but the Celts also had only four holidays (they didn’t celebrate the equinoxes and solstices), and lived in an entirely different climate than that of most Americans.  It’s always important to look to our ancient pagan past for inspiration, but that past is not an absolute, just because someone once looked at something a certain way doesn’t mean that we have to now.  Besides, it’s hard to look to the really ancient past for inspiration at Imbolc, there’s no documentation on how it was celebrated.  (Though it’s probable, judging from medieval records, that the holiday had something to do with the birth of farm animals and the first milk from those animals that accompanied it.)


Last weekend I led an Imbolc ritual for my local open circle.  I had a lot of great friends drive (or train) in from distances great and small throughout the Bay Area.  One of those friends asked me what Brighid chants we would be doing for the ritual.  I told her none, and could sense her disappointment.  Imbolc has the unique distinction of being the only one of the eight Contemporary Pagan sabbats associated with a particular and specific deity.

Brighid is no archetype, or folk-tale turned into a goddess.  She was undoubtedly worshipped in ancient Ireland as the goddess of teaching, the forge, and healing, and her influence was so powerful that she was morphed into the Christian St. Brigid (1).  Many have argued that her worship might have encompassed a much larger segment of the Ancient Celtic World than just Irealnd, as the name Brighid (and variations of it) has been attached to a plethora of Celtic Goddess Figures.

Many of the traditions and rituals celebrated with the Feast of St. Brigid (February 1) have been absorbed into Modern Paganism (or perhaps they were pagan to begin with, but there are no records of them before the 1600’s), mostly because they feel Pagan.  Dressing up a bed for the “saint” to lie in while leaving her milk and cookies feels more like a Yuletide Santa tradition than a Christian one, but the tradition of “Bride’s Bed” is well documented throughout Catholic enclaves in the British Isles(2).  I’ve known a great many Pagans who annually weave a cross for Brigit out of straw or rushes and place it above their front doors for good luck.  Whether these traditions are truly Ancient Pagan or Irish Catholic is irrelevant, it’s more about what they do for the individual.

The Christian holiday of Candlemass is another piece in the puzzle of Imbolc.  Candlemass isn’t a corruption of Imbolc, but an entirely different holiday, just coincidently on the same day.  The earliest celebrations of Candlemass date back to the fourth century, with the holiday its self being dedicated to purification and the “return of the light” (possibly inspired by Christian imagery such as “Jesus is the light of the world”).    The Roman word februa (where we get February of course) signified purification; Spring cleaning has been around for a long time. (3) The most memorable aspect of Candlemass involved candles, the celebration of light’s return, a celebration that has been co-opted (or perhaps reintroduced) by Modern Paganism.

Out of the two holidays which co-exist with Imbolc, it’s Candlemass that I tend to take the most from.  Yule works well as a “return of the light” holiday as well, but at Imbolc it’s easy to see the days getting longer and the sun getting stronger.  It’s no longer a hope or a wish like at Midwinter, but an actuality.  Celebrating the return of the Sun as a young solar god meshes well with much of the cosmology found in Modern Eclectic Craft.  I don’t have a problem with Bridgit, it’s just that the worship of a mature, womanly goddess doesn’t coincide with how many of us view The Wheel of the Year in February.  For many Pagans, the Wheel of the Year isn’t just a seasonal journey, it’s a walk with the Lord and Lady as they proceed through the various points of life.  At Imbolc I celebrate the young Maiden who is beginning her walk through our world.  Unfortunately, that journey has nothing to do with Brigid, who is goddess enough that she deserves more than to be shoe-horned into a ritual.

So for many reasons, Imbolc is a boondoggle of a holiday.  It’s the only sabbat with wide variations from place to place.  It has a history that parallels two (at least) nominally Christian holidays, and the only sabbat set aside by many that specifically references one particular deity.  It also lacks a truly knowable ancient past, unlike Yule or Samhain.  Does this mean my Imbolc Ritual wasn’t enjoyable?  Certainly not, and I’ve always liked having a holiday during a relatively quiet point on the calendar, just don’t expect all of us to agree on what it means every year.


1.  The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton.  Blackwell Publishers, London England, 1993.   pg. 153

2.  Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton.  Oxford University Press, 1996.   pg. 137

3.  Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton.  Oxford University Press, 1997, pg. 139.

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