Imbolc is the midway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, the marker that Spring is returning, and a celebration to honor the goddess Brigid (Brighid, Bride, Brigit). This is a time to honor Mother Earth as she wakes from her winter’s recovery of giving rebirth to the Sun King at Yule.
Imbolc is mentioned in early Irish literature, and there is evidence it was an important date in ancient times. The etymology of Imbolc/Imbolg is unclear. The most common explanation is that it comes from the Old Irish imbolc (Modern Irish i mbolg), meaning “in the belly”, and refers to the pregnancy of ewes. Another possible origin is the Old Irish imb-fholc, “to wash/cleanse oneself”, referring to a ritual cleansing[i].
Imbolc is a festival associated with the goddess Brigid, and was Christianized as a festival of Saint Brigid. Brigid’s name is from Old Irish meaning ‘exalted one’. She is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft (metalworking) and Brigid is considered the guardian of domesticated animals. To the Romans Brigit became Britannia, and it is from her that the island of Britain got its name. Romans treated Brigid as the equivalent of the Roman goddess Minerva and Greek Athena[ii].
Brigid was taken over into Christianity as St. Brigid, but she retained her strong pastoral associations. Her feast day was Feb 1 (Imbolc) the time when the ewes came into milk. Worship of St. Brigid had a great establishment at Kildare in Ireland that was probably founded on a pagan sanctuary. Her sacred fire there burned continually; it was tended by a series of 19 nuns and by the saint herself every 20th day. Brigit still plays an important role in modern Scottish folk tradition, where she figures as the midwife of the Virgin Mary. Numerous holy wells are dedicated to her.
At Imbolc, Brigid’s crosses and a doll-like figure of Brigid –called a Brídeóg– were made. Brigid was said to visit one’s home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brigid and leave her food and drink, and items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless[iii]. Brigid was also invoked to protect homes and livestock. People participated in special feasts and visits to holy wells, and it was a time for divination.
Since Imbolc is immediately followed on February 2nd by Candlemas, Irish Imbolc is sometimes translated into English as “Candlemas”. Candlemas is a Christian holy day falling on February 2, which is traditionally the 40th day, and the conclusion of, the Christmas–Epiphany season. It is customary in some countries to remove Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night while others remove them on Candlemas. On Candlemas people historically brought their candles to the local church, where they were blessed and then used for the rest of the year. To celebrate Candlemas, all the candles in the house should be lit. Pancakes and crepes were traditionally associated foods, and it’s said that the pancakes, with their round shape and golden color were reminiscent of the Sun, and hopes for the return of Spring after the dark and cold of Winter[iv].
The American custom of Groundhog Day derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and winter will persist for six more weeks, and if it does not see its shadow because of cloudiness, spring will arrive early. The Germans already had a tradition of marking Candlemas as “Badger Day” (Dachstag). While the tradition remains popular in modern times, studies have found no consistent correlation between a groundhog seeing its shadow or not and the subsequent arrival time of spring-like weather.[v]
The Roman culture featured myths and religious customs that had far older roots, and some origins are lost to antiquity. There is a long lineage of Spring myths and festivals, and customs being adopted or evolving over time, but most center around purification, both physical and spiritual; deep gratefulness and celebration for love, fertility and procreation; as well as gratitude for the returning light and warming sunshine in the lengthening days[vi].
The month of February is named after Februus, the Roman god of purification, whose Latin name means “purifier”[vii]. Februus may have become Febris, Roman goddess of fever (febris in Latin means fever). These are possibly connected with the sweating of fevers, which was considered a purgative, purifying process. Because of the association with fire as a method of purification, at some point the celebration of Februalia became associated with Vesta, a hearth goddess much like the Celtic Brigid. February 2 is also considered the day of Juno Februa, the mother of war god Mars (for whom March is named). [viii]
February is possibly named in honor of the more ancient Februa, the spring festival of washing and purification. The Februa spring purification festival occurred on February 15th, and was later incorporated into Lupercalia[ix]. Lupercalia was a Roman festival in honor of the she-wolf who nursed infants Romulus and Remus, during which sacrifices, and ritual purifications were also performed (Lupercalia relates to the Latin for ‘wolf’, lupus)[x].
On the day before Lupercalia, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the young men, for him to escort the chosen lady to the festivities. To abolish the pagan custom of boys drawing the names of girls, the Christians substituted the names of saints[xi]. Eventually February 14th became associated with several early Christian martyrs named Valentine. One apocryphal story of a martyred Valentine states he helped young couples who wanted to marry in defiance of Roman law, which lead to his imprisonment and execution. In A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14 as “St. Valentine’s Day.” Despite the early Christian effort to rebrand it a saint’s day, the custom of choosing a sweetheart on this date continued, and spread through Europe in the Middle Ages.