An ancient Gaelic festival is the perfect antidote to the frenzy and commercialism of other feast days, writes Nuala Woulfe.
January can be such a dreary month after the frenzy of Christmas, so much so that my 12-year-old recently said there should be another feast to get us through winter. I told her there is, it’s called Imbolc.
Imbolc comes from the Gaelic, Im bolg, (in the belly) celebrating the very start of spring, when animals are carrying young, equally the goals people make in January for the year ahead are in progress but not yet realised.
Astronomically it’s a period between the winter solstice and spring equinox, the period in early February when ancient Ireland celebrated the goddess Brigit and fire was brought into the home for purification.
In ancient tradition, Brigit is the fire goddess of fertility, growth and birth. Saint Bridget, whose feast day is also this time of year, is the patron saint of midwives and new mothers and in the Christian church this time corresponds with Candlemas; the purification of the Virgin after the birth of Jesus.
Just as Little Christmas is very much a time for women in Ireland, Imbolc can be interpreted as a feminine festival and it’s a great time to have a coffee morning to celebrate hopes and ambitions with friends or work colleagues.
You’re meant to celebrate with white lit candles (representing purifying fire) and symbolic seasonal items. Food like cream cheese, cream and yoghurt are brought to the table, acknowledging the lactation of pregnant animals. Honey celebrating Brigit’s protector role to beekeepers also makes an appearance.
To celebrate New Year ideas and resolutions, which are taking root; seeds perhaps sesame or pumpkin, also come to the table and early spring flowers, such as snowdrops and any buds are brought into the home.
In Galway this yearning for connection to the earth and old ways is a big part of the success of the Celtic mythology themed www.brigitsgarden.ie where each of its four gardens is named after a Celtic festival and where Imbolc is celebrated every year, acknowledging both Goddess and Saint.
“We’re a non-denominational, educational charity and we welcome everyone here; men, women and children,” says director, Jenny Beale.
“We’re a garden for the 21st century, we’ve a lot of environmental education programmes for children to keep them inspired but we also keep the old traditions alive because they’re relevant. Today there is a deep yearning for connection to the natural world which is not especially religious but is broadly spiritual.”
Every Imbolc the centre celebrates Brigit with rush making, three knocks on the door, welcoming spring, and dipping bread into milk and honey or making paper snowdrops. On alternative years the centre hosts an international Brigit’s Festival.
“Imbolc is celebrated worldwide — Irish people took their traditions with them. We’ve had visitors from Canada, New Zealand and even Scandinavia as some Scandinavian traditions seem closely connected to Brigit,” says Jenny.
In Tipperary community nurse, Noirin Rooney is also a Celtic Shaman Practitioner who collects folklore and runs courses out of Ireland’s only eco-village in Cloughjordan.
“The very old people still leave out cloths on Brigit’s Eve to get the healing dew from her cloak when she blesses Ireland.
"During Imbolc old people would tell you you’d clean out your hearth and it would be lit anew and the cattle were blessed… right now there’s a spiritual awakening going on and a thirst for our ancient knowledge, on February 5 I’m going to the Brigit’s Well in Liscannor, Co Clare, which is ancient and anyone is welcome to join me.”
I ask Noirin with the growing interest in ancient customs is there any conflict between Brigit the Goddess and Saint. “There’s no conflict, there’s room for everything but undoubtedly there’s a rising in awareness of ancient traditions, they’re in our oral tradition, ancient sites and fairytales.”
On February 12 Noirin is doing a women’s circle where participants will “talk about Brigit, do a meditation to her for healing and make bracelets with her symbols — the swan and the cross”.
A further workshop, “working with the energy of Imbolc,” open to men and women is on February 18.
Throughout February individuals and institutions are holding events for Brigit. The University of Limerick is holding a Festival of Light tomorrow to coincide with the Irish Goddess Bride and Indian Goddess Saraswati.
It will be “an all night event in celebration of creativity which will culminate in a ritual offering of the goddess into the River Shannon.”
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