Irish History: Volume VIII
Springtime Traditions, Part 1
Spring is here! And, as we’ve discovered on this blog, many of our modern celebrations here in America come from ancient, Celtic, and often pagan traditions. Just as Samhain welcomes autumn and Yuletide winter, the people of ancient Irish had a number of festivals to welcome back the warm weather and promise of growth and change.
Pagan springtime traditions begin in Ireland not in March or April, but the beginning of February (that’s around the time we’re all about ready for spring, after all) with Imbolc/Imbolg (pronounced im-bohlk) or, it’s Christianized incarnation: St. Brigid’s feast day. One of the four major fire festivals (along with Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain,) Imbloc falls squarely between the winter solstice and the spring equinox on February 1st into the 2nd and heralds the upcoming change of the seasons. “Imbolg” means “in the belly” and before it became the feast day of St. Brigid/Bridget (an actual historical figure we’ll have to do a post on someday soon!) it was the dominion of the fertility goddess Brigid. Brigid (who deserves her own post as well,) oversaw not only birth and pregnancy, but also poetry, crafts, and prophecy as a goddess of creation. As an early agrarian society, this festival also aligns with the breeding cycle of sheep—long a staple feature in Irish farm life and a symbol of fecundity.
Imbolc was traditionally celebrated like all fire festivals with, you guessed it, fires! For Imbolc, the blazes signify the sun’s return and the beginning of the “light half” of the year. While the two biggest fire festivals (Samhain in October and Beltane in May) were (and still are!) usually large, communal affairs, Imbolc was a time of reflection at your own hearth with your family before all the work that would come when spring fully arrived. Additionally, it was tradition to take the time to visit holy wells to leave offerings to the gods so they would help spring arrive quickly and provide good weather for the growing season. Supplicants would walk “sunwise” around the well and provide food from their feast tables (everything from cheeses to bannocks,) coins, and “clooties”—strips of cloth often used in healing rituals, often left in nearby trees.
(So far, none of these traditions sound much like anything we practice today, but just wait…does this bit remind you of anything?) Weather was of particular concern to Irish pagans whose reliance on the land was one of the tenants of their religion, and Imbolc was also a time to look for omens regarding that summer’s weather. Bad weather on Imbolc was considered a good omen for the coming season, based all around the rather terrifying legend of the Cailleach (meaning literally “old woman” or “hag.”) The Cailleach is associated with storms and winter, and sleeps through the warm months—so if it’s a bad day out on Imbolc she’d said to be already asleep. Because, of course, if she needed more wood for more winter it’d be nice out to facilitate her gathering firewood!
Did you guess? That’s right, Imbolc is the root of Groundhog’s Day! Even though this relatively silly holiday didn’t appear until 1887 (and Imbolc’s roots lay far in the distant past,) it prescribes to the exact same superstition: a cloudy day means Puxatawny Phil doesn’t see his shadow and spring is on its way! If you missed it this year, Phil did predict six more weeks of winter in 2021. Luckily, we’re already past it!)
Similarly to the Christian church’s adaptation of other pagan holidays, there was a natural changeover from Imbolc (which, reminder, was always closely associated with the goddess Brigid as she’s part of this lighter half of year with her creation associations) to the Catholic feast day it’s become. No, the church isn’t celebrating a pagan goddess, but an abbess from the 5th century who also held this traditional Irish name and whose good works and miracles (founding Ireland’s first nunnery, converting her own Druidic father, restoring sight to the blind, and even creating beer out of water) had her canonized and named one of Ireland’s two patron saints. Those familiar with Catholicism will recognize this time (February 2nd, more specifically) not only as celebrating the Saint Brigid, but also as Candlemas—a day where many Irish people still bring candles to their churches to be blessed. The influence of the ancient fire festival is easy to see (though with the advent of electric heating, it makes sense our hearths and bonfires have become the more readily available candles.)
But, you might be thinking, Imbolc only covers February and spring is a whole season! Don’t worry, we’ve got you. Tune in again next week for more connections between Ireland’s past and present, and how we continue to celebrate around the world today!
This post is part of a series, read our last installment, all about St. Patrick's Day in modern Ireland, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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