Imbolc is one of the four principal festivals of the pre-Christian Celtic calendar, associated with fertility ritual, was subsequently adopted as St Brigid's Day in the Christian period, and in more recent times has been celebrated as a fire festival, one of eight holidays, festivals (4 Solar and 4 Fire/lunar) or sabbats of the Neopagan wheel of the year. Imbolc is arguably one of the predecessors of the Christian holiday of Candlemas.
Imbolc is conventionally celebrated on 1 February although the Celtic festival commenced on January 31. In more recent times the occasion has been generally celebrated by modern pagans on Feb. 1 or 2. Some neopagans relate this celebration to the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox, which actually falls on Feb. 4 or 5.
Evidence of how Imbolc was celebrated in Ireland derives from folklore collected during the 19th and early 20th century in rural Ireland and Scotland, compared with studies of similar customs in Scandinavia. Like other festivals of the Celtic calendar in Irish mythology, Imbolc was celebrated on the eve of 1 February, which marked the beginning of the day according to Celtic custom.
The festival was traditionally associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, soon to give birth to the spring lambs. This could vary by as much as two weeks before or after the start of February.
The name, in the Irish language, means "in the belly" (imbolg), referring to the pregnancy of ewes, and is also a Celtic term for spring. Another name is Oimelc, meaning "ewe's milk"; also Brigid, referring to the Celtic goddess of smithcraft, to whom the day is sacred.
That Imbolc was an important time to the ancient inhabitants of Ireland can be seen at the Mound of the Hostages in Tara, Ireland. Here, the inner chamber is perfectly aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain.
The holiday is a festival of light, reflecting the lengthening of the day and the hope of spring. It is traditional to light all the lamps of the house for a few minutes on Imbolc, and rituals often involve a great deal of candles.
In the modern Irish Calendar, Imbolc is variously known as the Feast of St. Brigid (Secondary Patron of Ireland) and Lá Feabhra - the first day of Spring.
One view is that Christianity in an attempt to reconcile the popularity of this festival with its own traditions, took over the feast of Imbolc and effectively redesignated it as St Brigid's day.
One folk tradition that continues in both Christian and Pagan home on St. Brigid's Day (or Imbolc) is that of the Brigid's Bed. The young girls of the household or village create a corn dolly, adorning it with ribbons and baubles. The older women then make a bed for Brigid to lay in. On St. Brigid's Eve (Jan. 31), the young women gather together in one house to stay up all night with the corn dolly, and are later visited by all the young men of the community who must treat them and the corn dolly with respect. Meanwhile, the older women of the community stay at home and perform other ceremonies.
Before going to bed, each household completely douses its hearth and rakes the ashes smooth. In the morning, they look for some kind of mark on the ashes, a sign that Brigid has passed that way in the night or morning.
On the following day, the Bride's Bed is brought from house to house, where she is welcomed with great honor. Since Brigid represents the Life Force that will bring people from the backside of winter into spring, her presence is very important at this time of year. People often will tap her effigy with an ash wand as well, perhaps an old remnant of more potent fertility rites that were once practiced.
Today, most modern neopagans celebrate it on the 1st or 2nd, the 2nd being more popular in America, perhaps because of the holiday's later identification with Candlemas. In the southern hemisphere it is celebrated in August.
Some modern Pagans argue that the Christian feast of Candlemas, whose date depends upon Christmas, was a Christianization of the feast of Imbolc. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Imbolc was celebrated in pre-Christian times anywhere other than in Ireland whereas the celebration of Candlemas began in the eastern Mediterranean.
Imbolc is often defined as a cross-quarter day midway between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara), and the precise midpoint is half way through Aquarius (in the northern hemisphere) or Leo (in the southern hemisphere). By this definition Imbolc in the northern hemisphere coincides with Lughnasadh in the southern hemisphere.
Fire is important for this festival as Brigid (also known as Bride, Brigit, Brid) is the Goddess of fire, healing and fertility. The lighting of fires represents the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
References to the festival of the growing light can even be traced to modern America in the Groundhog Day custom on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow on this morning and is frightened back into his burrow, it means there will be six more weeks of winter. The custom comes directly from Europe, and Germany in particular, where an old couplet goes: If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year.
During the Winter, the Maiden is with the Dark Lord and the land is bare.