Imbolc was first celebrated in honor of the original Brighid, a Gaelic fertility goddess, and of the coming spring, and is thought to have been observed since Neolithic times.. The Eve of Imbolc falls around the 1st February, the midway point between the winter solstice and the coming vernal equinox of spring… Like so many other holidays, the custom has been purloined by Christianity and the Goddess renamed “Saint” Bridget, but this false meaning will hopefully soon be swept away.
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On the Eve of this holy day, the custom is to leave out items for the Goddess to bless, such as clothing, because she would visit the houses of the celebrants to give them spiritual gifts and good fortune. Some ancient monuments are aligned to mark this day when the light begins to return to the darkened winter world.. for instance the Neolithic passage tomb called “Dumha na nGiall” of Tara, the “Mound of Hostages”.
Candles are lit to celebrate the return of the light, divination is practiced, and the visiting of holy wells is considered appropriate. An ancient ritual some still follow involves a walk in a sun-wise direction around a holy well to express their joy, becoming living solar wheels if you will. There may have been swastika dances meant to represent the turning of the Sun and the power and fertility of lightning as well, since some of these beautiful swastika folk dances still survive in Latvia. Even the Brighid’s cross is a sun symbol or swastika, when seen as it really is.
In various parts of the UK, holy wells are still considered to have miraculous properties, and in some more remote places they are yet visited by those seeking blessings, such as being healed of an illness, particularly at sacred time such as Imbolc, when it is believed that such petitions are more likely to be granted by the Gods. The holy wells, and some wells in particular, are widely famed to be places where one can seek answers to questions, and receive signs from Nature and the Gods. Even the movement of the water, leaves, and fish can be thought of as a way of finding hidden meanings and knowledge, and especially of gaining prophetic knowledge of events to come.
Even now, sacred water is drunk from the holy wells at special times, in circular cups, made of animal bones, for enlightenment, and communion with Ancestors and Gods, and these customs remain undisturbed despite the onslaught of Christianity. Offerings still are made to our deities and ancestral spirits, such as coins being thrown in the wells, or bits of metal, jewelry, flowers, or other small gifts, hung in a certain tree nearby. To this day, clouties or clotties, made of bits of cloth, are tied in a tree near the waters in gratitude for having been spiritually enhanced and restored by the properties of the holy well and its accompanying sacred trees.
The trees tend to be hawthorn trees, a tree that is sacred to Brigid. It bears red berries and its white flowers bloom on Beltaine. These trees are said to provide a gateway between our world and other realms. They still exist in some places where wells no longer are visible. These holy trees, then their descendants, have been honored continuously from very ancient times. In Ireland, they are known as “wishing trees” … When it is healing and protection that has been sought, the bits of brightly colored cloth are considered a triumphant testament of illness having been taken away and replaced with vibrant good health and abundant life, but other desires are sent forth to the Gods at these small sanctuaries too, and there is still a belief that wishes can be granted there.
There are records of special customs in the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to honor Brighid’s visit. Some involved making a bed for her and setting out candles, ale, and delicacies for her to eat, and others involved calling for the Goddess to come ritually three times. In Ireland and Scotland, young girls and women dressed in white with flowing hair would make dolls called Brídeóg and dress them in gowns decorated with sea shells and flowers. They would carry them in procession from house to house singing and receiving gifts for themselves and the poor. The young men would then make homage to the Goddess and join the maidens for dancing, games and feasting , sometimes all night.
A Manx legend has it that an ancient Goddess in the form of the Caillagh ny Groamagh, a giant bird with twigs in her beak, comes on Imbolc and grants a fair day if people need to gather the firewood for the rest of the season. If she does not appear…this means that she is asleep and the winter is almost over. It is also the time when many spring flowers began to appear, and Imbolc and its Germanic counterpart celebrations are the forerunners of the Groundhog Day we know, since there were observances to see if serpents or badgers came out from their den as well.. Here is a Scottish proverb…
Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground
And now, a Gaelic Song to honor Brigit and the Caillagh ny Groamagh…
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