How to Celebrate Imbolc Like an Ancient Celt

photo of people in masks dancing with torches

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Groundhog Day (the North American holiday), Hromnice (the Czech holiday), Candlemas (the Christian holiday), Saint Brigid’s Day (the Irish holiday)… what do all of these holidays have in common—apart from taking place in early February?

They all have their roots in the same ancient Celtic tradition: Imbolc.

What Is Imbolc?

Also known as Imbolg, Imbolc marks the midpoint between the winter solstice (a.k.a. midwinter) and the spring equinox. It was a pastoral festival, celebrated among the ancient Celts as the beginning of spring.

According to professor and folklorist Juilene Osborne-McKnight, the name Imbolc is derived from the Irish i mbolg, which translates to “in the hold or belly”—a reference to “pregnant ewes who gave birth to lambs in early spring” (source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans). An alternative theory, put forth by the ninth-century bishop-king Cormac mac Cuilleanáin, holds that Imbolc stems from the Irish word Óimelc, meaning “beginning of spring,” which in turn was derived from the Irish ói-melg, meaning “ewe milk” (source: Sanas Cormaic / The Glossary of Cormac).

Regardless of the precise etymology, it’s clear that the feast of Imbolc has long been associated with that time in late winter when female sheep come into their milk. In fact, this association is made reference to in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), an Irish epic—part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology—that dates back to at least the seventh century. In the story, the famed Irish warrior Cú Chulainn attempts to woo a girl named Emer. Looking down at her dress, he says, “I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there.” In response, Emer proceeds to list the tasks Cú Chulainn must perform before she’ll allow him to unsheath his…uh…“weapon.” This list of tasks includes the following: 

“No man will travel this country who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain [Hallowe’en], when summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc [Candlemas or Groundhog Day], when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning.”

source: Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

Imbolc’s association with ewes coming into their milk made the feast a natural fit for dedication to the triune Irish goddess Brigid (a.k.a. Brighid, a.k.a. Brigit), who also had counterparts in Gaul—as Brigindo—and Britain—as Brigantia (source: Peter Berresford Ellis, A Dictionary of Irish Mythology). Here’s how Osborne-McKnight explains the Brigid-Imbolc connection:

“Because lambs are the origin of the holiday, it was dedicated to Brighid/Anu/Dana, a three-faceted goddess and protector of everything creative. The primary figure of the trinity was Brighid; she protected ewes, hearth fires, poetry, blacksmiths, pregnant women, and midwives. In ancient times, it was believed that she would visit and bless the hearths of the people, leaving her footprints in the ashes. Because Imbolc signified spring and a return to light, the festival utilized candles and hearth fires as symbols of hope.”

source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

With the arrival of Christianity, many of the qualities and characteristics of the Irish fertility goddess Brigid were transferred to St. Brigid of Kildare—including the goddess’ feast day. The daughter of a druid/chieftain, St. Brigid founded the monastery at Kildare on the site of a pagan shrine dedicated to her namesake (source: Wake Forest University Press). Some scholars, including Irish archeologist R. A. S. MacAlister, contend that St. Brigid was actually a priestess of the cult of the goddess Brigid before she converted to Christianity.

photo of a bronze statue of the Irish goddess Brigid
Statue of a Celtic goddess, probably Brigid (Brigantia) circa 1st century AD (source: Wikimedia Commons)

While Imbolc would widely become known as Saint Brigid’s Day in the Celtic world (Lá Fhéile Bríde in Irish, Là Fhèill Brìghde in Scottish Gaelic, Laa’l Breeshey in Manx), the pastoral association did not change. To quote Irish folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin:

“The main significance of the Feast of St Brigid would seem to be that it was a christianization of one of the focal points of the agricultural year in Ireland, the starting-point of preparations for the spring sowing. Every manifestation of the cult of the saint (or of the deity she replaced) is closely bound up in some way with food-production, and this must be the chief line of approach to a study of the spring festival.”

source: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1945, p. 164

When Did the Ancient Celts Celebrate Imbolc?

The short answer: the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc on February 1st, which is a “cross-quarter day,” i.e., a midpoint between a solstice and an equinox. These liminal times were revered by the ancient Celts. As American folklorist Don Yoder explains:

“The seasonal turning points in the Celtic year were immensely important communal festivals in prehistoric, pre-Christian times. Of these festivals, the dates have continued to be important down to present time, though the celebrations were transformed by the medieval Church into “Christian” holidays. The four turning points of the Celtic year were November 1, February 1, May 1, and August 1. The year began with November 1, the Celtic New Year, and ended with the Harvest Festival of August 1. The Celtic names for the four festivals were Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa.”

source: Groundhog Day

However, while it makes sense for us to peg February 1st as the date for Imbolc, given how we measure days, the ancient Celts did things a bit differently: they measured their days from evening to evening. Hence, it would be more accurate to say that Imbolc begins on the evening of February 1st and ends on the evening of February 2nd—that’s when the ancient Celts celebrated it.

According to Lady Wilde (a.k.a. Jane Francesca Agnes Wilde), it was the 2nd of February when all of the real raucous Imbolc festivities took place. And that raucousness is what led the Catholic Church to hijack the holiday. To quote Wilde:

“Candlemas day, the 2nd of February, used to be held in the old pagan times as a kind of saturnalia, with dances and torches and many unholy rites. But these gave occasion to so much ill conduct that in the ninth century the Pope abolished the festival, and substituted for it the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, when candles were lit in her honour. Hence the name of Candlemas.”

source: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, 1919

How Did Imbolc Inspire Groundhog Day?

It may seem like a stretch to go from milking ewes and lighting torches to monitoring hibernating rodents, but there is actually a very reasonable connection between Imbolc and Groundhog Day. Because it marked the beginning of spring and the beginning of a new farming season, Imbolc/Brigid’s Day was a time to monitor one’s surroundings and make predictions about the weather. As Irish folklorist Kevin Danaher explains: 

“In Irish folk tradition St Brighid’s Day, 1 February, is the first day of Spring, and thus of the farmer’s year. It is the festival of Ireland’s venerated and much-loved second patron saint [the first being St. Patrick], who is also the patroness of cattle and of dairy work…A relaxation of the rigours of winter weather was expected at this time…The farmers now hoped for good weather to speed the spring ploughing and digging…Weather signs were carefully noted; the wind direction on the eve of the festival betokened the prevailing wind during the coming year; the festival day should show signs of improving weather, although an exceptionally fine day was regarded as an omen of poor weather to come.”

source: The Year In Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs

And while there’s no record of Irish farmers monitoring hibernating rodents in order to make predictions about the weather, there is a record of them monitoring hibernating hedgehogs to do just that. 

No, seriously. To quote Danaher: 

“To see a hedgehog was a good weather sign, for the hedgehog comes out of the hole in which he has spent the winter, looks about to judge the weather, and returns to his burrow if bad weather is going to continue. If he stays out, it means that he knows that mild weather is coming.”

source: The Year In Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs

That being said, Groundhog Day was not an Irish import: it almost certainly arrived in North America from mainland Europe. In Germany, for example, farmers monitored badgers or bears on the Christian holiday of Candlemas, which falls on February 2nd. The Czech holiday of Hromnice, which also falls on February 2nd, also saw farmers monitoring badgers and bears, as well as geese and skylarks.

According to Yoder, this type of animal-based forecasting evolved from a simpler tradition of monitoring the weather on Candlemas/Hromnice: a clear, sunny day meant winter weather would continue—which mirrors the Irish St. Brigid’s Day tradition. This alignment in February folkloric weather forecasting is no coincidence. As Yoder points out in his book Groundhog Day, these traditions have their origins in a much older Celtic tradition: Imbolc. 

4 Imbolc Rituals for Welcoming Spring

1. Light a fire.

In pre-Christian times, the Celts would gather on hilltops during Imbolc and light ritual fires. These bonfires were lit in honor of Brigid, and worshippers would ask her to watch over their herds and provide a bountiful harvest. When Christianity arrived in Ireland and St. Brigid built her monastery in Kildare, she continued the custom of lighting ritual fires. Centuries later, the Brigidine Sisters carry this tradition forward.

2. Make a doll…out of oats.

It’s likely that the ancient Celts made representations of the goddess Brigid (a.k.a. Briid in Scotland) out of straw or oats on her feast day. An example of such a custom was recorded by the Scottish clergyman Donald Monro in his seminal 1549 work, Description of the Western Isles of Scotland. The following excerpt comes from a 1703 reprinting:

“…as Candlemas Day comes round, the mistress and servants of each family taking a sheaf of oats, dress it up in woman’s apparel, and after putting it in a large basket, beside which a wooden club is placed, they cry three times, ‘Briid is come! Briid is welcome!’ This they do just before going to bed, and as soon as they rise in the morning, they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid’s club there, which if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill-omen.”

3. Hang up a Brigid’s cross.

Wait…a Brigid’s cross? How could that be an ancient Celtic tradition? It must be the result of Christianization, right? Actually, it’s likely that the Brigid’s cross predates both St. Brigid and Christianity itself. As Osborne-McKnight notes: “The ‘cross,’ which is woven of reeds, is the symbol of the sun and therefore of Imbolc” (source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans). Today, this symbol is hung to protect a house from fire—which is fitting, given the goddess Brigid’s associations with fire, the hearth, and blacksmithing. 

4. Leave your significant other.

I’ll let the American scholar Thomas Cahill explain this one:

“Unlike the continental church fathers, the Irish never troubled themselves overmuch about eradicating pagan influences, which they tended to wink at and enjoy. The pagan festivals continued to be celebrated… As late as the twelfth century—seven centuries after the conversion of the Irish to the Gospel—a husband or wife could call it quits and walk out for good on February 1, the feast of Imbolc, which meant that Irish marriages were renewable yearly, like magazine subscriptions or insurance policies.”

source: How the Irish Saved Civilization 

Disclaimer: if you do end up leaving your significant other on Imbolc, you didn’t get the idea from me.

Further Reading

Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint

by Brian Wright

Per the publisher: “Brigid is a mysterious figure, both goddess and saint, who is still revered worldwide today in her different aspects. Combining early Celtic history, archaeology and customs associated with both the goddess and the saint, this book provides a fascinating insight into the development of this unique mythical and historical figure. Using the available evidence, the author suggests a date for the conception of the deity Brigid, suggesting why and by whom she was created. He also explains how the goddess ‘became’ a saint and how this is historically linked with the unification of Ireland under a High King.” Learn more…

Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day

by Carl F. Neal

Per the publisher: “Imbolc―also known as Brigid’s Day―is a time to awaken from our months of introspection and start making plans for the future. This guide to the history and modern celebration of Imbolc shows you how to perform rituals and magic to celebrate and work with the energy of the re-awakening earth.” Learn more…

Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess

by Courtney Weber

Per the publisher: “Brigid—mother, daughter, healer, bard, warrior, fire goddess, goddess of the oak, animals, and magic. Brigid of the spring, her festival Imbolc, oversees fertility of all kinds. Brigid is many things to many people. In this enticing book, Courtney Weber offers up a wide-ranging exposition and celebration of all things Brigid, who is arguably the most popular figure in Celtic mythology and religion. Meet Brigid in her various incarnations—Celtic Pagan Goddess, Christian Saint, and Voudon Loa.” Learn more…

The Ancient Celtic Festivals: And How We Celebrate Them Today

by Clare Walker Leslie

Per the publisher: “Children love holiday celebrations but most don’t know why they wear masks on Halloween or watch for the groundhog on February 2. Now they can discover that many of our modern traditions started with the festivals of the ancient Celts. The Celts were farming people, so their festivals marked the important events of the agricultural year. Imbolc, in very early spring, celebrated the birth of new lambs, while Samhain, in late fall, celebrated the end of the growing season and the beginning of winter. If we look at our modern calendar, we’ll find Groundhog Day falling where Imbolc did…” Learn more…

The Turning of the Year: Lore and Legends of the Irish Seasons

by Eithne Massey

Per the publisher: “From the author of the hugely successful book Legendary Ireland, The Turning of the Year explores the Celtic division of the year, from Samhain to Imbolc, to Bealtaine, to Lunasa, back to Samhain. It examines the significance of particular times of the year and features re-tellings of various legends associated with them. The book will look at the close connection of the Irish with the land and with nature, bringing us on an exhilarating journey through the Irish seasons and the customs that welcomed each one in turn.” Learn more…

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