All About Candlemas: Imbolc, Brigid, and the Returning Light
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Throughout the Celtic lands, in the time before Christianity, February 2nd was Imbolc (I’ve heard it pronounced both “im-olk” and “im-BALL-ugh”), the feast day of the goddess, Brigid. The word itself, Imbolc, comes from a word for “ewe’s milk,” referencing the fact that sheep and other animals were pregnant or starting to give birth around this time. Indeed, as the days begin to noticeably lengthen, the fallow earth seems less like a grim reminder of winter death and more like a promise of new life to come.
Oddly enough, it’s thanks to the early Christian missionaries to the British isles that we know more about Imbolc and Brigid than many of the other Celtic deities. Her status as “The” Goddess was so great, they chose to adopt her as a saint rather than attempting to do away with her entirely, and they preserved many aspects of her divinity intact (interesting fact: the very name “Britain” is derived from her name, as is Brittany in France and Britannia, the symbolic goddess of Great Britain). Among the Celts, it would have been almost unimaginable to accept a religion with a male god and no female counterpart, so early Irish converts to Christianity must have taken some solace in the fact that they were allowed to continue to honor her in the form of St. Brigid of Kildare, who, as patroness of mothers, babies, poets, smiths, dairy workers, and doctors, maintained a somewhat similar role to the goddess they had once revered above all other deities.
Discovering Brigid was, to me, like a spiritual homecoming. As someone who has grown up singing, “oh come let us adore him” every Christmas Eve, the idea of a reality where I might instead be singing “oh come let us adore her,” on Imbolc heals a part of my heart that I didn’t even know was wounded. Honoring Brigid - the mother of mothers, healer of healers, Goddess of the Hearth and Home - restores to us the female side of divinity that has been oppressed in mainstream western culture for thousands of years.
Imbolc is Brigid’s time because she is a giver of life - a goddess of fire with dominion not over just the physical flames in the hearth, but the creative fire that drives us to write poetry, to care for one another, to find love, to fight for a just cause. She is also a water goddess, and countless wells, rivers, and springs throughout the Celtic world still bear her name. It is through the alchemy of fire (spirit) and water (the womb) that new life is possible. And so, it makes sense that she should be the one to bring springtime, which she does by drawing her magical green cloak over the earth, melting the snow and bringing forth the first snowdrops.
Throughout Europe, imbolc came to be known as Candlemas, the day that priests bless new candles for the year ahead. It’s likely that this tradition also originated long before the church, since February was a good time to process beeswax and candles were made around this time. I also tend to refer to imbolc by this name, since it’s easier to remember and pronounce, and still captures the melding of Pagan and Christian that is central to the story of this holiday. It is, after all, a celebration of light and fire.
Some of the things we've enjoyed doing as a family on or around Candlemas include:
Making Candles (as you've seen in my previous posts) is a given!
Making Ice Lanterns
Eating a traditional St. Brigid's Day meal, with symbolic foods such as bannock, colcannon, and more. Gather Victoria has a wonderful article about the origin and sacred foods of Imbolc, although as a busy mom, the menu is more aspirational than something I could hope to duplicate!
Giving handmade gifts and learning about traditional crafts
Telling stories about Brigid
Spending time outdoors and discussing what animals do this time of year
Making corn dolls
Making Brigid's Crosses
Cleaning and blessing the house
Ritual baths and making bath bombs, soap, etc.
I'll try to share some of our experiences with these projects in future posts throughout February, but I hope that something from this list inspires you to start your Candlemas traditions today!