IMBOLC or OIMELC The first festival of spring

Imbolc means ‘In the belly of the Mother ‘and refers to the potential for growth in whatever way is most relevant in your life. Welcome to February the month of Rowan, the tree of protection, magical power and creativity. Imbolc is the first festival of spring traditionally held at the beginning of February, when the Celtic Brighid as the maiden goddess melts with her wand of fire the winter snows (if global warming has left any!)

In the northern hemisphere Imbolc is January 31 to February 2; in the southern hemisphere it is July 31 to August 2.

The first festival of spring often when the land is still frozen is a reminder that new life stirs within the Earth and within people long before the effects are seen or felt externally. 

This was the all important time when sheep and cattle give birth to their young and so fresh milk and dairy products were first available to the community after the long winter in early agricultural societies.

This was in a number of pre Christian traditions the festival of the young maiden goddess. But it is also linked with the story of the newly delivered mother of the sun king whose milk is mirrored by the milk of the ewes who gave this festival its name of Oimelc or Ewe’s milk. 

The Dark twin is still powerful as reflected in the cold weather and dark days but the young God of light is growing in power as he is nursed by the Goddess.

The Christian Candlemas, the festival of candles, took place on February 2, the day of the Purification of the Virgin Mary on which she took baby Jesus to the temple for the first time.

Associations with Imbolc and the whole of February
Animal: Serpent, black cat
Tree: Willow
Incenses, flowers and herbs: Angelica, basil, benzoin, celandine, crocus, heather, myrrh, snowdrops and violets.
Candle colours: Pale pink, green, blue and white.
Crystals: Dark gemstones such as garnet and bloodstone/heliotrope, also amethyst, rose quartz and moonstone.

In the Northern hemisphere, at dusk on January 31 in the pagan calendar according to Celtic tradition fiery torches and bonfires were lit to attract back the sun. A procession around the frozen fields with blazing torches was led it was said in pre-Christian times, by the maiden Goddess herself and in later periods by a huge Grain maiden pulled on a cart made from the last sheaf cut from the previous harvest.

This festival of early spring is celebrated when traditionally the land is still frozen, though now the spring flowers bloom earlier each year and on the Isle of Wight the first daffodils, primroses and crocus are already coming through in late January. Imbolc is a reminder that new life stirs within Mother Earth and within us. This was the all important time when sheep and cattle had their young and so fresh milk and dairy products were available to the community once more.

Though it is the time of the Maiden the other aspects of the Goddess also overshadow her, the newly delivered mother of the Sun King whose milk is mirrored by the milk of the ewes who gave this festival its alternative name of Oimelc or ewes’ milk. The Dark brother who rules the dark part of the year still holds sway but the young God of light is growing in power as he is nursed by the Goddess and according to myth will fight and defeat his brother at the Spring Equinox around March 21 in the ongoing between light and darkness

One of the Celtic names for the pagan festival was Brigantia, after Brighid, the Celtic Triple Goddess, here in her maiden aspect replacing the Old Hag of Winter’s rule. She was Christianised as St Bridget, Brigid or Brigit of Kildare or St Bride in Wales and Scotland and her feast day is February 1. Brigantia was also the name of a Gallic earth goddess.

Right through medieval times in folk custom a girl representing the young maiden of spring (the former goddess) arrived at the door of the main house or farmstead of a village on January 31 eve with cows and a cauldron, symbols of abundance. Here a straw bride bed would be created close to the fire, adorned with ribbons and blessed with honey and milk by the women of the household.
The local men would enter the circle of firelight and ask for help with their craft or agriculture and make a wish on the Bride Bed and claim a kiss from the maiden.

Bridget crosses, none of whose three or four arms are parallel, were woven from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection. They are still a feature in Irish homes today.

The Anglo-Saxon Offering of Cakes ceremony to the deities at this time asked for a thaw in the weather so that the first ploughing might take place early.  In Scandinavia Disting, the festival of the family ancestors around this period was associated with future prosperity because it was a time the cattle and resources remaining after the winter’s forced inactivity were counted. In Iceland, Thorrablót was dedicated to Thor the thunder deity as god of winter. He was asked to drive back the Jotuns, the frost giants so that spring would come.

In the Christian tradition, on Candlemas Day, February 2 or the Sunday between January 28 and February 3, all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year were blessed at High Mass. Blessed candles were also distributed to the congregation. Each person was given a blessed candle that acted as protector of the home against storms, fire and flood and protected cattle and crops against evil.

Traditionally a lighted candle was placed at each window of houses on January 31 (dating from Celtic times) or on Candlemas Eve, February 1 and left to burn through. On the following day, the feast of St Blaise, the newly sanctified church candles were used by priests to bless the throats of parishioners, so that they would be free from all respiratory illness in the coming months.

In the Christian calendar the anniversary of the Purification of the Virgin Mary occurred forty days after the birth of Jesus, the occasion also when he was taken to the Temple on February 2 and was hailed as the light of the world.

Candlemas was also the day for predicting the weather for the coming weeks and the arrival of spring weather. The US Groundhog Day, February 2 follows this tradition.

In Ancient Rome, at the rites of Juno Februa, animals were brought out of their winter hibernation, candles were lit in homes to drive away evil spirits and blazing torches cast into the River Tiber.

Ways of marking the festival in the modern world

  • Personal and home purification, by burning smudge sticks in sagebrush or cedar and spiralling the, smudge around your home, your possession and yourself before taking the smoke stick outdoors to burn away or go out.
  • Personal detoxing and the beginning of a fitness and healthy eating regime to maximise your energy and increases your resistance to winter ills and chills
  • Candle meditations or just quiet times sitting by candlelight talking to your family or friends. If you are alone hold a clear crystal between your hands and ask your guardian angel and spirit guides if they have any messages for you. These may be expressed through words that come into your mind or images and sudden good ideas. 
  • Create a candle web with friends or relatives for healing or peace. Choose an evening when you are all at home and pre-agree a time when you can light a white or beeswax candle and all focus on the same person, animal or place and send healing through the candle. You can adapt the web for people who live in nearby time zones. Leave the candle to burn through.
  • Unless you live in a warm land, plant seeds indoors or under glass, naming for each handful of seeds what you wish to bring into your life in the months ahead. You can plant the germinated seeds outdoors on the Spring Equinox if it is warm enough
  • In age old tradition, pour a little fresh milk on to the earth as a tribute to the Earth Mother and as you do so, ask for fertility in any aspect of your life you need it. Drink the rest or use it in cooking
  • On the night of February 1 (or August 1 in the southern hemisphere), place nightlights safely at every window of your home to welcome the new energies into your home. Once candles were lit to welcome Brighid the maiden goddess on her day February 1 and later St Bridget on the Christian festival of Candlemas, February 2 , the blessing of the candles for the year ahead in a special church service
  • Take a ceramic heat proof bowl of milk and in it drop ice cubes to represent the cold of winter; gently melt the ice with a small candle or burner beneath the bowl, stirring it and naming the energies you wish to move in or through your life or any quarrels or coldness you wish to resolve or melt 
  • A time for career renewal. In the old tradition a local girl dressed in white as the maiden goddess and later to saint would appear at the door of important houses and farms. Indoors would be a straw bed by the fire where she would be given milk, seed bread and honey and would bless the local workers.
  • To focus on the way you wish your career to develop, on the evening of January 31 (or July 31st in the southern hemisphere) make a tiny straw bed or one of dried rose petals and in it place a small doll dressed in white. Surround it with the first greenery or buds of spring. Place in the straw symbols of the blessings you would like in your life, whether tiny charms related to your craft or job applications of ideal careers .Drink a little milk sweetened with honey and put three drops on the head of the doll. Keep the doll and bed in position until dusk on February 2 and then scatter the straw or petals to the wind, give the doll to a child and carry any charms in a small drawstring bag to bring you luck. Send off an application, start learning some new skill that will further your career or apply for a course or extra training
  • Give packets of seeds to friends or friends’ children to plant indoors and take along a green plant or two to refresh the workplace and as a reminder of the coming spring. 

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