In most households in the United States, February 1st will be spent gathered around the television watching the Super Bowl. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Celtic people of ancient times would have been celebrating Imbolc (i-molk). What is Imbolc, you might ask? It was the ancient pagan celebration of the Celtic people ushering in the spring season. Imbolc was also a time for “divining” the weather. This was perhaps a forerunner for our Groundhog Day. Imbolc was widely celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. As these are all places to which I have traced my family tree, I thought I should find out what this tradition entailed.
Imbolc, celebrated on February 1st, is one of four Gaelic festivals centered around the seasons. It occurs halfway between the winter and spring equinox, and was originally begun as a celebration for the Celtic goddess Brigid, who was the goddess of fire. Brigid was thought to visit house to house on Imbolc. Her followers would leave her gifts of food and clothing, as well as a bed in which to sleep, all in hopes of receiving her blessing. They made Brigid’s Crosses, which were small crosses woven with rushes or straw and placed in the home. The ancient Celts believed that the cross would protect them from evil, as well as protect their homes from fire, as Brigid was the goddess of fire.
Traditions of Imbolc were mainly centered around the home, and spring cleaning was very important. Feasts were held, prayers were raised, and candles were lit. Bonfires were important, as fire was thought to represent purification. People visited holy wells, and the water from the well was used to bless homes.
Today, this pagan holiday has been Christianized, and transformed into a celebration of St. Brigid of Kildare, Ireland’s most important female saint. St. Brigid was an Irish nun who lived from about 450-525. She was supposedly born to a mother who was a Pictish Christian and a father who was a pagan clan chieftain. She was named Brigid by her father in honor of the Celtic goddess. When Brigid converted to Christianity, her pagan father was obviously not pleased. He tried to dissuade her, but Brigid was solid in her convictions. Brigid went on to found Kildare Abbey, as well as other convents, and was eventually made a saint. She is the patron saint of many things, babies, abused children, poets, travelers, and scholars, just to name a few.
The festival in honor of St. Brigid is widely celebrated today. Some of the ancient traditions associated with Imbolc have been absorbed into celebrations for St. Brigid’s Day. People still celebrate by visits to holy wells, and special foods are eaten. Some of these foods are colcannon (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage), dumplings, barmbrack (yeasted bread with raisins), or oaten breads.
While I am neither Catholic nor pagan, this tradition is quite fascinating to me. The idea of a holiday centered around hearth and home, spent with the people I love is appealing, and my home can definitely benefit from a good spring cleaning! If you would like to celebrate something other than the Super Bowl on February 1st, maybe you can incorporate some of these traditions into your day. I am including a recipe for St. Brigid’s Oaten Bread from Travel Ireland. I plan to try this recipe myself, and I may even share it with my husband while he forces me to watch the Super Bowl.
Written by Heidi
St. Brigid’s Oaten Bread
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, in small pieces
3/4 cup uncooked oatmeal (old fashioned)
1/2 cup buttermilk
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Grease a baking sheet.
Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Add butter bits and cut in with knife until mixture is crumbly. Add oats and mix well.
Beat the egg with the buttermilk in a separate bowl.
Make a “well” in the dry ingredients, then pour in the egg mixture and mix all with a fork until the crumbs hold together. Form the dough into a ball and knead (on a floured surface, about 20-25 times). Add flour if the mass is still too sticky to work with.
Form the doughball into 8-inch round and transfer it to the baking sheet.
Score a deep cross into the bread but do not cut through.
Bake for fifteeen to twenty minutes, or until medium brown and a tester comes out clean