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How does one celebrate the early-February fertility festival of Imbolc like an ancient Celt?
Here’s the problem:
The ancient Celts—and more specifically the druids, their religious leaders—didn’t leave behind instruction manuals.
In fact, the Celts had a taboo against writing down sacred knowledge.
So most of the accounts we have of their activities come from the Classical Greeks and Romans.
Here’s the deal though:
Only one first-hand account of a Druidic ceremony, courtesy of Pliny the Elder, has survived from the Classical Era. The ceremony, as I explored in an earlier post/video (“The Celtic Origins of Kissing Under the Mistletoe at Christmas”), involved cutting mistletoe off of an oak tree with a golden sickle during the winter solstice. Aaand slaughtering some cattle.
So what about Imbolc?
The good news is that in some cases, the extensive oral traditions of the Celts—it took druids upwards of 20 years to learn everything, FYI—were eventually put to vellum centuries later by Christian monks.
This is precisely what happened with the Gaels, the Gaelic- or Goidelic-speaking Celts, which is why Irish mythology exists (at least in its present form) today.
In the Irish myths, Imbolc, which marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, is a day of great importance with strong associations to the goddess Brigid.
Mythology aside, we can still find traces of Imbolc in its modern, Christianized incarnation, Saint Brigid’s day, which to this day is celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
And of course there’s that whole cockamamie theory that Imbolc inspired Groundhog Day.
But I’ll leave that for you to decide.
How to Celebrate Imbolc Like an Ancient Celt
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, adopting the goddess’s name, built her monastery in Kildare, she continued the custom of lighting ritual fires.
Centuries later, the Brigidine Sisters carry this tradition forward.
The sisters are a Catholic congregation founded in Ireland on February 1st, 1807. Here’s how the Sisters describe their patroness’s feast day. And I quote:
The feast of St. Brigid on the 1st of February is a celebration of the wonderful springing back of the earth from its winter sleep in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the season when we celebrate new beginnings and new life on earth. The sod is turned. The day lengthens. Seeds are sown and sails are hoisted.
Many of the stories about Brigid tell of her milking the cows, churning the milk, making up the firkins of butter, shepherding her flocks of sheep, helping with the harvest and even brewing the ale!
Brigid, in keeping with her Celtic tradition, was wonderfully attuned to the seasons and cycles of nature. She valued the elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water.source: https://brigidine.org.au/about-us/our-patroness/
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…”
The sheaf of oats dressed in woman’s apparel sounds remarkably similar to a craft from another Celtic cross-quarter day:
The corn dolly, which is traditionally made on the August 1st harvest celebration of Lughnasa.
And yes, I actually know how to make these—my daughter and I made the ones you’re looking at right now—and come this summer I’ll post a video walking you through how to make your own Lughnasa corn dollies step-by-step.
But it’s not summer yet, folks. (Sorry.)
Let’s get back to Imbolc.
3. Check for footprints by the fireplace.
Centuries before there was a Santa Claus, there was the Celtic goddess Brigid.
Turns out that old trick of spreading flour around the fireplace, right near that glass of milk and plate of cookies (and carrots and/or celery for the reindeer, of course) in the hopes of capturing Santa’s footprints is perhaps rooted in a much older Celtic tradition.
Only back when the ancient Celts were doing it, they didn’t need the flour. They just checked to see if the goddess Brigid had stomped around in the ashes that were already casually strewn about the floor near the hearth.
Things were a lot dirtier back in the Iron Age.
The footprints—clear, inscrutable evidence of a visitation form a divine being (cough)—were considered a good omen.
They signified that Brigid had deemed a household worthy enough for an Imbolc hearth-blessing.
In Monro’s Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, a variation of this custom is described in which “the mistress and servants” check not for footprints but for the imprint of Brigid’s club in the ashes.
And I quote:
“[A]s 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.”source: Description of the Western Isles of Scotland
4. 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 folklorist and professor Juilene Osborne-McKnight notes:
And that’s from the 2015 book: 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 the hearth and blacksmithing, and St. Brigid’s associations with candles.
Here’s a video on how you can make your own St. Brigid’s cross. (I haven’t mastered nor even attempted this one yet so I’ll be deferring to the experts—Ireland’s Office of Public Works.)
I’ll also link here to a St. Brigid’s cross you can buy—one that’s handmade in Ireland, of course.
5. 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.
Blame Paul Simon.
- Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright
- Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day by Carl F. Neal
- Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddes by Courtney Weber
- The Ancient Celtic Festivals: And How We Celebrate Them Today by Clare Walker Leslie
- The Turning of the Year: Lore and Legends of the Irish Seasons by Eithne Massey
Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)
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
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
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.