Some Information on Brigid and the holiday of Imbolc culled from
our Senior Druid Norma's notes for an Imbolc Druid Service and Sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County;
Rev. Norma Hoffman, Grove of the Other Gods, ADF - Guest Speaker,
February, 2003.

"Spring's Underground Beginnings"
In the cold of early February, many ancient and modern traditions have a celebration to anticipate the arrival of Spring. Join us as the Rev. Hoffman, Senior Druid of Grove of the Other Gods, ADF, discusses the folk traditions, myths, and contemporary Pagan practices that connect the holidays of Imbolc, Candlemass and Groundhog Day. Come and herald the underground beginnings of Spring.


The holiday I’m here to talk about today is called by many names: Imbolc, Imbolg, Candlemass, Candelaria, Lupercus, Brigantia, and St. Brigit’s day, and yes, Groundhog day too. It’s origins are in ancient Ireland, Scotland, and Great Britain. Where, I might add, the weather at this time of year is mostly fairly similar to ours - too cold for comfort.
There’s pretty good evidence that the ancient Celts were mostly a herding people with some agriculture on the side. Their main holidays had to do with what was happening to the herds and crops that sustained them. There were four main holidays:
Samhain (somewhere roughly around November 1st - and remember that this is far enough back to be calenderless time - no Roman emperors calendar or popes revision to it - when I say roughly I mean really roughly) the Celtic new year. Celebrated when the herds were moved to winter pastures.
Imbolc (somewhere roughly around February 1st) when the ewes were lactating and heavy with lambs.
Beltaine (somewhere around May 1st) when the herds were moved to summer pastures and the first crops were planted. As the herds were moved from pasture to pasture they were driven between two large fires - the Bel fires. As spooky as this sounds the main purpose was probably to remove ticks, fleas and other vermin from the hides of the herd.
Lughnassadh (somewhere around August 1st) when the tribes got together for the start of the harvest of crops and of animals to prepare for the winter.
What’s so special and so vital about the ancient holiday of Imbolc is that the crops and meat that were put away in August at Lughnassadh would probably have been just about running out by February and hunger would have been a real issue. An issue like most of us have never, thank the Gods, known. The pregnancy of the ewes would provide life-saving nutrition in the form of milk. And if a ewe delivered early there would be lamb to eat. I recently learned from a friend who’s the daughter of a sheep farmer in Wales that if a lamb is delivered early in these modern times, exactly the same thing happens. If the lamb were to be allowed to live it would stop nursing before there was tender grass available for it to eat and would die of starvation so they consider it a mercy to kill it before that happens and a blessing to have the fresh meat in the winter. So the base of the ancient holiday of Imbolc was about survival and the miracle of having food without having to kill the herds.
My husband and I went to the local petting zoo last week and I’m happy to report that, although we have no sheep to check on, the local goats were well and truly pregnant enough to be lactating. Although it doesn’t mean anywhere near as much as much to us modern supermarket shoppers, it’s good to notice that the wheel of the year is still turning.
Along with the lactating ewes other signs of spring abound in hard-to-see places. One Imbolc tradition is to cut dry reeds from a reed bed. They look dead, as these reed do here, but when we cut them last week many of them were green and growing inside. If you went to your garden and dug up a snowdrop or daffodil bulb you’d see that they’re already growing, just waiting for warmer weather. The very tops of the tree are just starting to get the tiniest of buds on them around here. So spring is really getting its start underground and way up in the air around here even if it doesn’t feel like it.
And many local animals are coming out of their winter hibernations to mate. This is where the groundhog comes in to the picture. Although Puxatawney Phil comes out of his burrow because his trainers tell him to, most groundhogs around here (in Ireland, Britain and Scotland they’d be looking for hedgehogs) would be roaming in search of a mate. The ancients frequently used wildlife as means of prophecy. The old legend has it that the fouler the weather at Imbolc the fairer and earlier the spring. So if an animal leaves his burrow in search of a mate around the first days of the ewe’s lactation and the weather is fair enough for him to see his shadow the weather will be bad and spring will be far off.
A slightly more modern addition to the holiday of Imbolc was the veneration of a Goddess or saint whose name is Brigit, Brigid, Brij, Bride, Saint Brigit or Brigantia. Brigid is a patroness of the arts, of crafts, of smithwork, of writing, of hearth and home, of healing, and as I mentioned in the childrens stories of wells and of fire. She also serves as the midwife of the spring, helping it to emerge from the cold and the snow. With so many attributes, you’ve probably guessed that contemporary Brigid is an amalgam of several pre-Christian Goddesses and the Christian St. Brigid of Kildare. This makes for stories that tell of widely varying personalities of Brigid.
One ancient charm for Imbolc day is:
On the feast day of Bride
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
Nor shall she touch me
Early on Brigids morn
The serpent shall comes from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

Then there would be offerings made and incense burned to “the daughter of Ivor” who is the serpent, so that no harm would come to the offerer in the coming year. This connects Brigid with the pre-Christian Celtic serpent worship. Did you ever wonder about the snakes that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland? Here they are. Not so much the snakes as the snake worshippers - practitioners of the Pre-Christian folk traditions.
Another legend says that “Brigid’s white mantle brings the spring”. And here we’re probably talking about an actual calendar date of February 1st, 2nd, 5th, or 13th, depending on which country you’re talking about. So if it snows or there’s bad weather anywhere around this time of year it’s an indication of an early spring. If the Daughter of Ivor come from the knoll on Imbolc and the weather is clear enough for Her to see Her shadow it means six more weeks of winter. No kidding. So the weather auguries are confusing this year: Phil the groundhog saw his shadow which is a bad thing, but Thursday’s snow is a good thing. I guess that means we break even spring-wise this year.
Brigid has been mentioned historically as the daughter of the Dagda, or good god and is one of the oldest know Goddesses of the pre-Christian Celts. Her fires at Kildare have been tended through the ages by Pagan Priestesses and Christian nuns and although it was extinguished briefly by narrow-minded people, it burns again today. She was not always portrayed as meek either. Brig means strength in old Irish. Brigid could fight when she needed to. As Brigantia, She led her tribe the Brigands into battle against the Romans. After the Roman battle Brigantia’s tribe took to waylaying enemies along the road and assaulting and robbing them. This is where the modern term brigand come from.
(Hand Doll to Ushers to pass around!)
As modern American Druids, we at Grove of the Other Gods welcome the spring and honor Brigid by following many little folk traditions. We always make Her a traditional Brigid’s doll like this one. Our Imbolc celebration was last Saturday and we made another Brigid’s doll for that. She was burned at the end of the ritual so that the doll could go back to it’s owner Brigid in Her fire. This Brigid’s doll was made for you and She will go back to Brigid later today in our little barbeque-grill-and-occasional- fire-altar back in New Brunswick. Under the Brigid doll are strips of cloth called Brigid’s brats. Brats meaning strips of material in Scots Gaelic. The cloth these strips were cut from was hung out at dusk on February 1st and taken in after dawn on the 2nd. So when the daughter of Ivor came from the knoll on her morning, when Saint Brigid walked across the land to visit her children, legend says that she will touch and bless any piece of cloth left out for her. I’m going to have this basket with Brigid and her cloth passed around. You are invited to touch the doll for good luck and prosperity in the coming year and to take one of the strips of cloth, one of the Brigid’s brats. You might want to tie the cloth somewhere in your home so Brigid will bless your hearth. You might also want to tie it to a tree near running water or a well. If you do that and make a wish Brigid is said to grant it. A very modern way to get both house blessing and wish is to tie the Brigids brat near running water - a faucet or water pipe or washing machine - in your own home. However you choose to use it, accept it as a reminder of Goddess and Saint Brigid and of the wonder of Spring underground and in the tops of the trees.
A lovely Scottish story of the Christian saint Brigid says that she was originally a poor serving girl in an inn in Bethlehem. The was a drought and food was scarce. Her master had gone in search of water and left Brigid with just one loaf of bread and one jug of water for herself. Her forbade her to allow guests at the inn because there was no water and he warned her not to share her bread and water or she would surely starve before he returned. A couple came to the door of the inn and asked for food and shelter. The man was older, grey-haired and tired looking. The woman was young and beautiful but Brigid could see the cares of the world lying heavy upon her. Brigid could not allow them to rest at her masters inn, since to do so would be to disobey her master, but she couldn’t help but feel sorry for the couple. She offered them some of her own bread and water and they drank and ate of the her meagre supplies. Sadly, she watched them walk away and wished she could do more to help. Later, as Brigid grew hungry, she turned to survey the small remains of her bread and water she found, to her great wonder, that the bread, which she had seen them eat most of, was whole again and the jug of water which had been nearly empty was full to the brim. She knew then that great miracles were happening and went running into the street to try and find the couple again. She didn’t have to go far because from a barn at the end of her masters property there came a glow and over it there shone a star. She ran to the barn just in time to be the midwife to the Christ child. When Brigid’s master came home to his inn he heard a rushing stream running by through his drought stricken land and saw the glow and the star over the stable and knew that as had been prophesied, a miracle had happened and Christ had been born in Bethlehem.

In rural Ireland and Scotland to this day Brigid is still loved and Her day of Imbolc or Candlemass is widely and enthusiastically celebrated by her people both Christian and Pagan. She is also formally called upon by midwives to help in the birth of children as she helped in the Christ child’s birth and, as in other legends, she helps to give birth to the spring.
Every woman who marries get to dress as the Goddess and Saint in white and to have Brigids blessing on the day she’s a Bride. Yes, that’s one explanation of where that word comes from.
But, sadly, in doing research for this talk I’ve been finding that Candlemass is pretty much not a big deal anymore in modern Christian worship in this country. Not so though in the unlikely place of South America. Remember that we started this talk by talking about weather-driven holidays. Well, sometimes the holiday jumps to a new place with old traditions that, while they’re still beautiful, make a little less sense than they used to. In Peru and Bolivia the holiday of the Virgin of Candles, Candelaria, is celebrated on February 2nd. Brigid, the midwife of Christ, has become here the Virgin herself. The people dance and sing through the town and bring candles to be blessed at the Cathedral where the statue of the Virgin of Candles lives. In many other holidays statues of the Virgin are taken out and join in the parade around town, but not in this holiday. And can you guess why? Because if the statue of the Virgin of Candles sees Her shadow on February second bad weather and calamity is sure to follow. Folk traditions are sometimes stronger than time and place and Knock Wood they’ll continue to be so until the end of time.
One more manifestation of Brigid I should mention and that’s a very contemporary one. Brigid as a midwife and a healer has shown her face again in Ireland and Scotland and in Pagan America as a spur to our consciences, reminding us at all times and especially in the cold of February, WE are Her emisarries and need to care for our own poor and sick and needy. Brigid has become a symbol for people trying to help and heal their little corners of the world and, yes, possible to midwife the birth of a new and more just world.


After the service, at the social, a woman mentioned that her mother and grandmother would check the stores of cans in the attic and preserves in the basement on Feb. 2nd to see if they had gone bad. That was the traditional date, and now she knew why. Her grandmother called Feb. 2nd "up and down day."

A man standing nearby mentioned a ryme he had heard while living in Maine: "Candlemass Day, Candlemass Day, Half the wood and half the hay"

These are the things we live for, and the gifts we get, aside from hospitality and friendships....

For rough notes of the full Druid ritual we designed for the Unitarian service, click here.