Tuesday, 2 February 2010


'Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning'. (The Tochmarc Emire)

Ronald Hutton, in his ground breaking "Stations of the Sun", tells us that this celebration, taking place on 1st or 2nd February, marked the start of spring. It is mentioned in the Irish texts, but he places this caution about what exactly it entailed:

"The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. There is, in fact, no sign that any of the medieval Irish writers who referred to it preserved a memory of them, and some evidence that they no longer understood the meaning of the name itself."(1)

He notes that the cult of Brigid also arose in Ireland, and is also associated with this time as "St Bride's Day", and has so overwhelmed the original festival that it is unclear what it ever entailed. Regarding Brigid, he says that:

"The Irish feast of Imbolc, rededicated to St Brigid, was kept with the same rite all over Ireland, and also in Man and the Hebrides; but not anywhere on the British mainland. There its role was taken by the universal Christian holy day of Candlemas."(3)

The goddess Brigid, and the saint of the same name St Brigid, are intermingled, and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction:

"What is by no means clear is whether there was one goddess, or a triple one, or several, and whether there was in addition a real Christian woman of the same name with whom the deity became conflated."(1)

The story of the saint is given by Bonnie Blackburn in "The Oxford Companion to the Christian Year". She notes the legendary aspects of the story:

"Brigid (Brigit, Bridget, Bride, in modern Irish Bríd, formerly Brighid) of Ireland (d. c.525), abbess of Kildare. Brigid is one of the many saints of whose lives legend and folklore have far more to say than history. Having become a nun at an early age, she founded the monastery of Kildare (meaning 'Church of the Oak') for both sexes and ran it with hospitable (one might say housewifely) compassion, changing her bath-water into beer for the benefit of unexpected visitors, multiplying butter, and producing milk three times a day from miraculously obliging cows (her emblem is a cow). Her name means 'the exalted one', akin to the British tribal name Brigantes and the Welsh brenin, 'king'. A twelfth-century martyrology calls her ard-ogh Erenn, 'the high maid of Ireland'; legend represents her as a rich man's daughter, so supremely self-confident as to give away his wealth to beggars without his consent. She was also a friend of learning, for in her previous life she had been the Celtic goddess of art and wisdom whom Julius Caesar equated with Minerva." (4)

The Anglo-Saxon festivals of February, and the start of spring, Bede as involving the making and eating of with sweet cakes, but little more.

The Christian festival of candlemas, is to do with the story of Jesus being taken to the Temple, and of the purification of Mary and Bonnie Blackburn explains that the date has in fact "slipped backwards".

In accordance with Mosaic law Mary came to the Temple forty days (inclusively reckoned) after bearing Jesus both to be purified and to present him, as a male firstborn, to the Lord ( Luke 2:22 ff.). The commemoration began c.350 at Jerusalem, where it took place on 14 February, the fortieth day of Epiphany, combining Christ's Nativity and Baptism as still in Armenia; in 542, after the end of a plague, the emperor Justinian proclaimed it for 2 February, the fortieth day of the separate Christmas, in honour of the Christ child's encounter with Simeon and Anna. This remains its significance in the East; but when it spread to the West it was understood as the Purification of the Virgin and was enriched by Pope Sergius I ( 687-701) with a solemn procession.(5)

This is one Christian celebration which may be on the same day as the Irish one., but is clearly quite different in purpose and form. As Hutton notes:

"The Christian celebration was concerned with purification and lights, not with cakes. The Christian feast has, therefore, no demonstrable links with ancient northern European practices. "(2)

Instead the focus was on "images of the appearance of divine light in the darkness of human sin, of renewal and rebirth of light in the dark time of the year, and of the new light of heaven manifested to an old world."(2).

The candles would be carried in procession on the feast, but unlike today's services, the parishioner brought the candle!
"Every parishioner was obliged to bring and carry one, and to offer it to the priest to be blessed, paying a penny for the service. The benediction was accomplished by placing each candle before the high altar, sprinkling it with holy water, perfuming it with incense, and pronouncing the blessing over it. Part of the latter stated that once the sanctified candle was lit 'the devil may flee away in prayer and trembling'. What happened to the consecrated objects next seems to have varied according to local custom or to individual wish. They were carried round the church again after mass, and then some seem to have been burned before a statue of the Virgin, and others taken home to be lit in times of storm or sickness, or in the hands of the dying."(2)

(1) Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996 p134ff
(2) Hutton, Op Cit, p140
(3) Hutton Op Cit, p411
(4) The Oxford Companion to the Year, Bonnie Blackburn, p61
(5) Blackburn Op Cit, p62

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