Imbolc, (“IM-bulk” or “Em-bowlk”) is a cross quarter holiday and Greater Sabbat and is the festival of the lactating sheep. It is derived from the Gaelic word “oimelc” which means “ewes milk” after the lactating sheep that are feeding their first born lambs of the new season at this time of year.. In the Celtic tradition it is celebrated on February 1st or the first Full Moon in Aquarius. Other names Imbolc are known by include Imbolg, Imbolic (Celtic), Imbolgc Brigantia (Caledonii Tradition, or the Druids), Candlelaria (Mexican Craft), Disting (Teutonic Tradition - celebrated on February 14th) Candlemas (some Pagan Traditions and/or individuals prefer this name), the Feast of Candlemas and St. Bridget’s Day (Christian), Oimelc, Brigid’s Day, Lupercus (Strega), the Feast of Lights, the Feast of the Virgin, the Snowdrop Festival, or the Festival of Lights. It marks the center point of the dark half of the year and is the festival of the Maiden because from this day to Ostara, it is her season and a time for the earth to prepare for growth and renewal. Herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders. This Sabbat is a time of cleansing and newborn lambs, a good time for the Blessing of seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. Imbolc is a time to honor the Virgin Goddesses, along with the first signs of returning life in a frozen Winterland. In many places, the crocus flower is one of the first to show itself popping up through the snow, and so it is also a symbol of this Sabbat.
Even though Imbolc occurs at the coldest and bleakest time of year, when spring seems far away, it marks the time when the days become noticeably longer and beneath the snow, ice, and frozen ground, unbidden, life begins to stir in the earth from the depths of winter. The earth is coming alive and once again it is time to begin anew. On this day we celebrate the return of light, new beginnings, fertility of the land which is shown to us in things such as the swelling of buds, on bare branches and in many places the first crocus and snow drops flower, springing forth brightly from the frozen earth. In old Scotland, the month fell in the middle of the period known as Faoilleach, the Wolf-month; it was also known as a’ marbh mhiòs, the Dead-month. But although this season was so cold and drear, small but sturdy signs of new life began to appear: Lambs were born and soft rain brought new grass. Ravens begin to build their nests and larks were said to sing with a clearer voice.
Imbolc was very important as it would give hope that their communities would survive another year. Their farm animals would begin to give birth, and cows and ewes (lambs) would begin to produce milk, Geese would began to lay eggs. Before this time of year, food would become very scarce, and such gifts from the Goddess were necessary to get through the rest of the winter.
This Sabbat is sacred to Brighid whose name means “The Exalted One” who is also known as Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Brighde, Brig or Bride and some scholars consider her name originated with the Vedic Sanskrit word brihati, an epithet of the divine. She is the Goddess of inspiration, dying, weaving, brewing, poetry, wisdom, healing, fertility,midwifery,reflection, meditation, great knowledge, intelligence, understanding and smith work, who in later times became revered as a Christian saint. She is closely connected with livestock and domesticated animals. She was also the guardian of Torc Triath, king of the wild boar, who gave his name to Treithirne, a plain in West Tipperary. These three totem animals used to raise a warning cry if Ireland was in danger. It is also said that Brighid’s snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather, and this is thought to be the origin of Ground Hog Day.
Another important aspect of Imbolc revolves around cleansing and purification. This may have come from our Pagan ancestors back when they used to sleep on straw and often had their barnyard animals living in their house with them during the cold winter months. Between Yule and the Vernal Equinox, they would assess how were doing with the hay to feed their livestock, and also provide themselves with bedding. If they figured they had enough to get through till spring, they would than take the old hay outside and burn it, and clean out their houses. This was a literal act of purification and cleansing.
It may be one of the reasons why spring cleaning is associated with this holiday, and why many Pagans burn their greens from Yule at this time. It is also a symbolic way, of letting go of the old, to make way, for the new.
This is not only a time, for physical purification, but can be used for personal, spiritual purification and cleansing. It can be a time for fasting, not only, to clean out ones physical system, but also in remembrance of the times, when food was scarce.
It can also be a time for putting ones personal business in order, to ask for forgiveness, and for forgiving oneself. A time to take inventory of relationships and jobs, a time of letting go of people and material possessions, that no longer serve our spiritual needs.
During the time before Imbolc, one may experience the feeling of “waiting alone in the dark” A time that may appear to be passive, but unseemingly, it is really an active time. Its activity is about getting ready to “awaken”, the potential for action, a time for preparation, for freeing oneself, and letting go. It is a time of hope for the future.
The God was reborn in His solar aspect at Yule; He’s reborn at Imbolc in His animal and some plant aspects. The Druids, you’ll remember, consider each goddess and god as individuals rather than as aspects of “the Goddess” and “the God.” Imbolc is, for them, the feast of the Goddess Brighid. We celebrate Her festival as the first sign of spring and new life. One of the themes on Imbolc is usually on light, rather than on heat and to that end, many of us celebrate with candles.
As the days are getting longer, wild sprouts are pushing through the snow and fields are thawing and can be ploughed and made ready for seed. On the Wheel, a calendar that recognizes four seasons, it’s the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring. Reckoning but two seasons, Imbolc’s the third of the Winter Sabbats. No matter how you track it, though, the Wheel turns.
Some of Imbolc’s customs that have come down through the generations have to do with the “corn dolly or biddy.” The first thing to realize here is that, in the British Isles, “corn” is what we’d call “wheat” or “grain,” not the new-world crop of corn that developed from maize. So while, for Native Americans, a corn dolly might be a corn husk doll, in Britain and in Wicca, a corn dolly is a vaguely humanoid figure woven of wheat stalks. You may have a corn dolly leftover from Lammas or Mabon. It’s customary then to use a few stalks of wheat or other grain from the harvest—most properly, the last stalks to be cut—to weave a dolly. The seeds in the heads of these stalks are for planting in the Spring. Using the harvest dolly at Imbolc foreshadows the success of the coming crop even more strongly. Making an offering of the Lammas or Mabon dolly at Imbolc, along with the last of Winter’s greenery, reinforces the relationship between harvest and planting seasons. At Imbolc, the New Year we’ve been celebrating since Samhain is clear enough to be visible in many ways, and making a new dolly for Spring recognizes this. (Traditionally, last year’s dolly is burned, rather than buried or simply thrown out.) Coming so early in the season, when it’s too cold to plant in many places, and in most, too cold to cavort in the woods, Imbolc is a time when we can focus on courtship. One way we represent the courtship of the maiden-again Goddess and the precociously growing God is by putting representations of the Them in a specially-made “bed,” which is then left before the fire or in some other significant place.
Grain Dollies can be made many different ways, and need not take on human shape unless you desire. They are made of wheat or sheaves of other grains such as straw, corn or barley. The sheaves are formed into some semblance of a “dolly” by folding, tucking and tying here and there. They can then be “dressed” in white cotton or satin and lace to represent the bride. You may even choose to create a “bed” (from a basket usually) for your grain dolly, commonly called a “Bride’s Bed”. There are many Pagan books available on how to create Candle Wheels, Grain Dollies, and Sun Wheels. Please refer to them for further instructions on making these decorations. Imbolc is also represented by burrowing animals, and the bride. Some other altar decorations may include a besom (Witch’s broom) to symbolize the sweeping out of the old, a sprig of evergreen, or a small Goddess statue representing Her in the Maiden aspect.
Imbolc can be symbolically represented by a dish of snow, evergreens and/or candles. Ritually, you may choose to light and hold candles (symbol of light) within the Circle. You may also want to place a wheel symbol upon the Altar. It is traditional upon Imbolc, at sunset or just after ritual, to light every lamp in the house —- if only for a few moments. Or, light candles in each room in honor of the Sun’s rebirth. Alternately, light a kerosene lamp with a red chimney and place in a prominent part of the home or in a window. If snow lies on the ground, walk in it for a moment, recalling the warmth of Summer. With your projective hand, trace an image of the Sun on the snow. Other Pagan activities may include the gathering of stones and the searching for signs of Spring. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants at this time.
Date: February 1st – 2nd, or the first Full Moon in Aquarius. Also may be celebrated at the very first signs of Spring, or at the full Moon closest to equally in-between Yule and Ostara. 2nd August in Southern Hemisphere.
Type: Greater Sabbat
Pronunciation: Pronounce Imbolg “EM-bowl’g”, “IM-bullug” or “IM-bulk” with a guttural “k” on the end. Imbolc “im’ molc” or “im’ bolc”
Symbolism: Festival of Light and Fire, first signs of returning life, honoring the Maiden Goddess, the returning fertility of the Earth, saying farewell to Winter and encouraging Spring. Purity, growth and renewal, the reunion of the Goddess and God, fertility, dispensing of the old and making way for the new.
Etymology: Irish Gaelic for “in the belly.” Other names include Brighid (pronounced “breed”), who is the Irish goddess whose festival this is; and Oimelc (pronounced EE-mulk), which means “ewe’s milk” in Scots Gaelic.
Place in the Natural Cycle: End of Winter and the start of Spring. The days steadily grow brighter, even if the cold is still upon us. The end of the dark half of the year is in sight; Imbolc is a celebration of the return of the light. It is now time to prepare for the Planting season. Herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders.
Pagan Mythology: Goddess recovers from childbirth, becomes Maiden. The child Solar God continues to mature, as can be witnessed in the lengthening days, and celebrations frequently centre around light.
Oak/Holly King Cycle: The Oak King, still a child, starts waxing as the Holly King wanes. The Holly King now sacrificially mates with the Goddess, dying and being reborn in Her arms to ensure his rebirth at Litha and to give the land his strength and fertility for the Planting season.
Animals: sheep, deer, burrowing animals, cow, lamb, dragon, phoenix, firebirds, snake, groundhog, raven, deer
Altar Decor: snowflake cut-outs, white and yellow flowers, Brighid Crosses, seeds, candles, stuffed animals of sheep, cows, Bride’s Bed, candle wheels, evergreens, garden tools, grain dollies, plow, red lamp or lantern, snow in container/cauldron, Sun wheels, white and yellow flowers
Herbs: basil, sandalwood, angelica, myrrh, rosemary
Flowers: crocus, iris, marigolds, tans, violets. All white or yellow flowers and first flowers of the year.
Trees: Evergreen, Rowan, & Willow
Celtic Tree Month: Rowan (Luis).
Planetary ruler: Uranus
Zodiac: 15 degrees of Aquarius
Moon: Storm Moon, Quiet Moon
Traditional Foods: All dairy products, breads, curries, chives, garlic, honey, lamb, leeks, muffins, mutton, onions, peppers, poultry, pork, poppy seed cakes, pumpkin seeds, raisins, shallots, scones, seeds, sour cream, yogurt.
Traditional Drinks: Chamomile tea, red clover tea, rosemary tea, blackberry teas, milk, spiced wines.
Incense: cinnamon, frankincense, jasmine, rosemary, vanilla, basil
Tools: plough, garden implements
Stones/Gems: amethyst, garnet, onyx, ruby, turquoise
Goddesses: Brighid, all Virgin/Mother Goddesses
Gods: Cernunnos, Eros, Herne, Osiris, Pan
Colors: white, pink, red, yellow, green, brown
Threshold: dawn /daybreak
Taboos: cutting or picking plants
Oilsapricot, cinnamon, rosemary, sweet pea
Tarot Card: the Star
Magickal Studies: It is a celebration of the first stirrings of Spring, and as such is associated with new beginnings, purification’s, and inspiration. This is the time to prepare the garden and start seeds indoors, as such; it is a good time to study the magickal or witches garden and to bless seeds. Now is a good time to tidy up the “magickal chest” and dispose of old herbs, oils, incense and such. Cleansing and re-consecrating the household hearth is also traditional.
Ritual Tools: Besom, bride dolly, bolline, cauldron, candles, garden tools, lantern, priapic wand
Cauldron: Snow, milk, or first spring flowers should be placed within the cauldron
Ways to Celebrate
- Now is a good time to cleanse, purify, and bless you house. It’s an excellent time to work inside, mend furniture, change tablecloths, bedding, and curtains, paint or wallpaper, spring clean, discard the useless, make room for the new.
- Clean and purify yourself, inside and out. Take a ritual bath, sauna, or steam bath, drink plenty of water and juices. Meditate to remove your mind of old limitations and negative thoughts.
- Make Maiden, Mother, and Crone sundaes, Vanilla (maiden), red strawberry sauce or strawberry (mother), and chocolate sauce or chocolate (crone).
- If there is snow on the ground, walk in it for a moment, recalling the warmth of summer and with projective hand trace a sun in snow.
- Cleanse and purify your tools.
- Write poetry
- Burn Yule greens to send winter on its way
- On Imbolc Eve, leave buttered bread in a bowl indoors for the fae who travel with Brighid
- Scatter food for the animals and birds outside.
- Weave Brighid crosses from straw or wheat to hang around house for protection.
- Make a crown of light (13 candles)
- Place a lighted candle in each and every window of the house, beginning at sundown on Imbolc Eve allowing them to continue burning until sunrise.
- Help your kids go through all their clothes, toys, and books to find unwanted and outgrown items. Donate everything to a charity that will give the items to children who need them.
- Turn off all lights and light only candles.
- Give milk to the earth as an offering by pouring it into the ground. This is done as an offering in the return of fertility and generosity of the earth to its people (the return of Spring).
- Make candles.
- If snow lies on the ground, walk in it for a moment, recalling the warmth of Summer. With your projective hand, trace an image of the Sun, spiral, a pentacle, any personal symbol on the snow.
- Make dream pillows.
- Have a bardic night. Have the evening of family fun with storytelling, music, and dance. Have a bardic circle where everyone brings poetry, songs or a short story that they have written to honor Brigid (Brigit/Brigid/Bride was the daughter of Dagda. She was the protector of the poets, the forge and the healing persons.)
- Gather stones.
- Leave a silk ribbon on your doorstep for Brighid to bless: It can then be used for healing purposes.
- Meditate as a family. Have everyone explore what it would feel like to be a seed deep in the Earth, feeling the first stirrings of life. Lie on the floor and put out tendrils. Stretch and bloom.
- Lead the family on a parade around the outside of your home, banging on pots and pans or playing musical instruments to awaken the spirits of the land.
- Have your children hold some herb seeds in their hands. Talk to the seeds. Bless them with growth and happiness. Fill them with love.
- Make corn dollies and a cradle for them to sleep in.
- Prepare a new project.
- Decorate your house with red table/ altar cloth and the flowers that will be coming in the spring.
- Before you start to plant, explain to you children the process of growth and renewal. Explain that as the bulbs grow, so will the sun, and by the time they flower, it will be spring. Imbolc is a celebration that spring is on its way, to warm the earth and bring life back to it. Tell your children that the name of this day is Imbolc, which means in the belly of Mother Earth. All the plants are asleep in her belly, as are the baby lambs in the ewe’s bellies, and the eggs in the chickens’. The fire of the sun will awaken all the sleeping things that are ready to be born.
- As you plant your bulbs, ask your children to hold each one, and fill it with their hopes for the coming year. As they plant it, they will nurture their hopes and watch them grow. When all the bulbs are planted, place the pots on warm windowsills, and water them well.
- Place three ears of corn on the door as a symbol of the Triple Goddess and leave until Ostara.
- Do crafts and activities such as knitting, crocheting, sewing, needlework, woodworking, scrapbooking, weaving, singing, gardening, poetry, brewing, and divination in honor of the Goddess Brigid who reigns over Fire, Art, and Healing.
- Loosely tie small strips of fabric on branches of trees and shrubs that can be used by birds for nesting. Our feathered friends will appreciate the threads they can pluck to build and fortify their nests. Choose fabrics in Brigid’s colors of white, red, blue, and green. Don’t worry about any pieces of fabric not chosen as they will biodegrade over time.
- As a natural link to the Wheel of the Year, choose a tree in your yard, neighborhood, or local park as your “own.” Spend time regularly observing your tree’s cycles of growth, and watch how it reacts to each Season. Visit your tree, and meditate under it when you can. Although you can choose any tree that appeals and feels right to you, it might be better to choose a tree that sheds its leaves instead of an evergreen since the changes will be more visible. Note that ash, elder, hawthorn, oak, rowan, and willow are considered sacred trees and would be particularly powerful choices.
- If the weather in your area doesn’t permit you to start a garden outdoors just yet, plant an indoor window herb garden and bless them.
- Clean and restock your magickal cabinet. Check your magickal oils, herbs, and incense. Discard oils that have “turned,” changed smell, or have a disagreeable odor. Discard herbs that are a year old. You can save these older herbs for craft projects if you so desire, but herbs that are a year old have usually lost their potency for spells and works of magick. Discard incense that has lost its smell or acquired the smell of neighboring incense due to improper storage.
- Using your besom sweep all the floors in your house to cleanse and get rid of all the negative energy that may have been stuffed inside throughout the winter. Finish sweeping at the front door, opening the door on the final “sweep” to sweep all the negativity out of the house. Then, permanently place your besom by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new.
- Create a rite of healing and purification in your bathtub. Light white candles, and ask the Goddess (or specifically, Brigid) to bless the water. Let yourself soak in the healing water, and focus on the candle flames while you meditate on Her healing qualities. If you have a fireplace, dry off at the hearth, asking for Her blessings with the Element of Fire. Brigid is the Goddess of Fire and Water; thus, you have invoked both of Her properties in your rite.
- In the capital of Kildare in ancient Ireland, an on-going group of nineteen virgin priestesses kept a perpetual sacred flame burning in a women’s only shrine in honor of the Goddess Brigid for approximately 1,500 years until it was extinguished by King Henry VIII’s soldiers. Five hundred years later in 1995, the fire was once more rebuilt in Brigid’s honor. So too, you can honor Brigid and the returning Light by floating 19 small white candles (tea lights work well for this) in a water-filled basin on Imbolc to represent Brigid’s priestesses who maintained Her eternal Fire.
- Weave a Brigid’s Cross from straw, reeds, wheat stalks, or stalks of other grains to honor Brigid or the Maiden aspect of the Goddess. Hang over your front door to protect your home from fire or in any room in your home to invite Her blessings and protection. Brigid’s Cross is sometimes fashioned as a three-legged triskele shape to represent the three phases of the Goddess, but it is more often made in the shape of a Pagan Sun Wheel with a woven four-armed cross representing the Solstices and Equinoxes and a square in the middle representing the Cross-Quarter sabbats. A Brigid’s Cross also makes a great housewarming gift.