The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
Imbolc is among the February feasts of purification. The festival falls on the Cross Quarter Day marking the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This Celtic festival begins the evening of February 1st and continues through the next day. Imbolc is understood to mean “purification,” however the literal translation is “in the belly” or “in the womb.” This has been euphemized to mean “in the Earth” indicating agricultural promise, however, the Celtic deity Brigid who is celebrated on this day is also a spirit of fertility and sexuality. Babies conceived at Beltane would, if brought to full term, be born at this time.
Imbolc is one of the ancient Celtic pastoral holidays. It celebrates the lambing season and the first lactation of the ewes. An alternative name for Imbolc is Oimelc, which is believed to mean “ewe’s milk.” Imbolc celebrates the first fluttering of life in Earth’s womb, the “quickening” that in the days before pregnancy testing was the first confirmation of pregnancy.
Imbolc is a fire festival celebrating light and new life. Earth awakens. Animals like bears and hedgehogs emerge from hibernation. The first spring flowers, like crocuses, begin to peek through the Earth. This is the day when the hedgehog, among Brigid’s sacred creatures, comes out of hibernation. Whether it sees its shadow and returns to hibernation or not is believed to foretell the length of winter. (Migrants to North America wishing to retain this custom but lacking hedgehogs, substituted groundhogs instead.)
The pagan deity Brigid was assimilated to the Roman Catholic Church as St Brigid. February 1st is her official feast day and is believed to be her birthday. Coincidentally perhaps, the goddess and the saint accept identical offerings.
Brigid’s pagan epithets include “Fiery Arrow,” “The Bright One,” “The Flame Without Ashes,” and “Moon Crowned Queen of the Undying Flame.” She is a spirit of healing, poetry, music, and smithcraft. She is the matron of artists, poets, craftspeople, and livestock. She may manifest as a pillar of fire or, alternately, a flame may shoot from her head. She is also sometimes depicted with a serpent wrapped around her head like a wreath. Her sacred animals include cattle, horses, wolves, and snakes.
St Brigid also has profound associations with fire. In one story she carries a burning coal in her apron but miraculously doesn’t burn. In another, flames shoot out of her head or engulf her but miraculously she is not burned.
Offerings to Brigid include poetry written in her honor, dishes of milk and blackberries as well as offerings given on behalf of her sacred creatures. On Imbolc Eve, it was traditional in Ireland to place a loaf of bread on the windowsill for Brigid, together with an ear of corn for the white cow with red ears who is her traveling companion. Sheaves of wheat are woven into x-shaped crosses known as “Brigid’s crosses” and hung from the rafters to serve as protection from fire and lightning.