Imbolc is traditionally the time when the lambs are born, and the sheep begin to give milk. (The etymology of “Imbolc” is uncertain, but is probably derived from Old Irish i mbolg, “in the belly”, referring to the pregnancy of the ewes, or to the nascent springtime.) In the British Isles, the daffodils are blooming, and spring is making its presence felt. Here in Massachusetts, we finally got our first real snowfall, and any lambs born right now would be nursed on ice cream. Maybe we should consider pushing back the celebration next year… In any case, our family and our Grove celebrated this weekend, and we all had a great time.
Brigid, the triple goddess of healing, fire, and poetry, is celebrated at Imbolc. She was a very popular goddess among the ancient Celtic peoples, with a combination of motherly love, a headstrong personality and poetic inspiration. She was especially celebrated at springtime, because she is the warmth that is opposite to the bitter cold of the Cailleach — the maiden who is captured by the crone. The rising Christian Church couldn’t get rid of her, so she was adapted into Christianity as St. Brigid, the midwife of God.
My wife, bless her heart, did a huge amount of work to make Imbolc special for us. She sewed white cloaks for us all to wear, gathered rushes so that we could make Brigid’s crosses and triskeles, baked an awesome lasagna, and even made a loaf of spelt bread in the shape of a solar cross. (The solar cross has arms of equal length, unlike the Christian cross.) She also sliced up apples and oranges and tied them to bits of string, and gathered or bought coins, dried herbs, butter, and birdseed.
When we arrived at Ellen Hopman‘s house, we put on our robes and headed out to the ritual area, which is about fifty yards back into the oak woods. We came to the little stream that gives our grove its name (Uisce Beatha, the Waters of Life), and “silvered the water” by dropping in coins and sending our blessings to Brigid. At the edge of the grove, we gave an offering of dried herbs to the trees, and then went into the circle and lit a candle for Brigid. (We were going to do a real fire, but we had to put that off for later.) After we sang songs, scattered birdseed, and hung apples and oranges on the still-standing solstice tree for the forest critters, we took turns stepping through Brigid’s Girdle, a loop bound up with solar crosses, symbolizing our rebirth along with that of the Earth. Then the tour de force: Ellen unveiled a Brigid doll that she had made for the season. It was about the length of a forearm, made of wood and corn husk, wrapped in a plaid (tartan) cloth and made snug in a basket with straw.
Then we headed out in procession, with my daughter carrying Brigid, down to road to the house of some friends. (They are not pagan, but they kindly allowed themselves to be processed at.) At their door, we lit candles and sang songs for them, and blessed their house by carrying the doll and the candles around it singing. In return, they gave pennies to the children. (They were delighted!) Then we processed back to Ellen’s house (two of the kids were being carried by this time) and blessed her house, as well, and then went inside to feast.
As I said before, my wife made lasagna and spelt bread in the shape of a sun cross. (Actually, she made two lasagnas, one with spinach and sausage for the non-vegetarians and one with no spinach for the never-ever-vegetarians). It was fantastic. (I’m rapidly using up superlatives to describe my wife’s cooking; the usual ones are getting worn out with overuse, and I’m going to have to start dipping into other languages.) Ellen concocted a strawberry shortcake, which was a huge hit.
After that, we headed back out to the grove to do the offering to fire properly. By this time, the sun was setting, and dusk fell as we worked to light the fire. It rapidly got very cold, and our younger children were getting quite tired, so we had to hurry things along; but we still made our wishes around the flames, and gave an offering of butter. We watched and sang as Brigid consumed the butter, and the sparks and embers carried our wishes up to the sky realm.
As we drove home, the children sang the Imbolc songs again — along with a rousing rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, a song with a whole new layer of meaning for us now. At home that evening, we had hot cocoa and read the story of Sleeping Beauty — one of those old folktales that preserves the memory of the goddess that sleeps, putting the whole world to sleep with her, and is awakened again.