Imbolc Explained: The Celtic Origins of Groundhog Day

photo of people in masks dancing with torches

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Pop quiz:

What do Candlemas (the Christian holiday), Saint Brigid’s Day (the Irish holiday), Hromnice (the Czech holiday), and Groundhog Day (that bizarre, North American rodent-watching custom) all have in common — apart from taking place in early February?

Turns out they’re all rooted in the same ancient Celtic festival: Imbolc.

Pssst. You can watch a video adaptation of this article right here (text continues below):

Yes, the reason why a bunch of old dudes in top hats freeze their butts off every February Second while groping a groundhog with a goofy name (Punxsutawney Phil), is because…

Well…

I mean of course they’re checking to see if the groundhog sees its shadow.

Because Pennsylvania Dutch superstition dictates that if, on the second of February, the sun is shining thus allowing the groundhog to see its shadow, six more weeks of wintry weather will ensue.

Oppositely, if there is no groundhog shadow to be seen, on account of cloud-cover, spring-like weather is right around the corner.

This might be common folkloric forecasting knowledge for many of you, but where did this superstition come from?

Well, as I already mentioned, the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Funny thing about the Pennsylvania Dutch: they were actually Germans who described themselves as Deutsch (you know how Germany is actually called Deutschland in German) so there was a bit of a translation error.

Regardless, the groundhog superstition is no doubt rooted in an older tradition from German-speaking regions of Europe where the badger—or dachs in German—was the preferred mammal for making meteorological predictions.

My hunch is this is why Groundhog Day is referred to as Daks Day in Nova Scotia.

But I digress.

The German badger-watching tradition, in turn, evolved from an older, Christian superstition that said clear weather on the feast day of Candlemas, held on February 2nd, was a portent of winter’s prolongment.

And how, dare I ask, did this Candlemas custom get its start?

We’ve finally gone back far enough that I can answer “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. 

OR…

What could be going on here is that before the Proto-Indo-Europeans even broke off into Celtic-speaking and Germanic-speaking branches all those thousands of years ago there was already a tradition of making predictions about spring’s arrival which was then inherited by both cultural groups, the Celts and the Germanic peoples.

Otherwise one has to assume that the Gaulish Celts, who had the most contact with the Germanic peoples of any of the other Celtic tribes, not only had an Imbolc tradition but also passed that tradition along to their Germanic neighbors.

But as far as I can tell, and please, correct me if I’m wrong, only the Gaels, a.k.a. the Gaelic-speaking or Goidelic-speaking Celts, are recorded as celebrating Imbolc and the Gaels, as far as I can tell, and again please correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t have much contact with ancient Germanic peoples.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the Gauls and other Celtic tribes didn’t have similar festivals but given the lack of evidence we have to entertain the idea that observing the habits of hibernating animals when winter’s end is nigh is a practice that could have evolved independently amongst the Germans and the Celts.

In which case the Celts had nothing to do with Groundhog Day and this post has been a huge waste of time.

Or has it been?


Up Next:

Further Reading:


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Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…


Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

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More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.


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