Imbolc

I wrote the wrote and led the following ritual for the Sunnyvale UUFS to celebrate Imbolc or Candlemass, a Celtic holiday marking the beginning of spring on February 1.  After the ritual, we shared our experiences of what we’d seen in the guided meditation and the project or thing that we would take back into our life.  Many people shared their sense that even though the culture said one thing, they had a sense of another. Someone shared her perception that the seasons began 6 weeks earlier than moderns believe, that this feeling would come to her on the wind.  She remembered living in western Massachusettes and seeing narcissus pushing up through her snowy back yard.  Perhaps settlers from a distant land had planted these tiny white flowers, and associated them with the hope of spring.  Perhaps we are all carrying ancestral memories of times past when we knew that our lives were intimately connected to nature.  May we remember that now.

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We are here to celebrate Imbolc, the festival of Brigid which marks the beginning of spring, the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. It was traditionally celebrated on February 1 in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. It represents one of four festivals marking the beginning of the season—along with Beltane on May 1 (beginning of summer), Lughnasadh on Aug 1 (beginning of fall), and Samhain on Nov 1 (beginning of winter). Imbolc, also spelled Oimelc, literally means ewe’s milk, since it comes at the beginning of lambing season, one of the first signs of returning life in the cold gray days of winter. Early flowers such as snowdrop are its chief symbols. It is the quickening, the time where mostly invisible to humans, life begins to flow in the limbs of trees in the form of sap and nutrients.

In the US we honor this day as Groundhog Day, which began as a German custom practiced in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its origin lies in ancient European weather lore in which a badger or sacred bear is the weather prognosticator, and marks the beginning of spring.

Bridget, also called Brigantia, Brigit, and Bhride, was the beloved Goddess of the Celtic people. Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 10th century by Christian monks, says that Brigid was “the goddess whom poets adored” and that she had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith, suggesting that she might have been a triple diety. One of the three aspects include poetry, writing, and inspiration; another rules healing, herbolgy, and midwifery; and the third rules the fires of the hearth, and of the smith, and the arts of smith craft.

The goddess Gobnait shares many parallels with Brigid. Her worship is limited to the mountains in western Ireland between Killarney and Cork. She is also associated with smithcraft and healing wells, and her worship day is February 11, but with the switch between Gregoria and Julian calendars, is equivalent to Febrary 1. According to lore, she left an island off the west coast of Ireland to find the place of the 9 white stags which she did in Balleyvourney. Gobnata means honey bee and Gobnait is associated with bees and is depicted standing on a hive. There are stories of her using the bees to defend the locals against an attacking army. Her name is a cognate with Gobniu, God of Smithcraft, and a forge is a prime feature of her cult site, and is visited twice in her pattern. The pattern is a common feature of Irish holy sites, where worshippers would walk around a site a certain way, stopping in specific places to make prayers.

Brigid was so loved by the people of Ireland that they refused to stop worshipping her even after the coming of Saint Patrick, and the Christianization of the island. The Catholic Church, to keep the people happy, canonized her St. Brigid of Kildare, saying that she had been the daughter of a Druid who predicted Chrisitanity and was baptized by Saint Patrick himself. At her shrine in Kildare, a perpetual flame has been kept alive, by 19 priestesses and later by the nuns of the Abbey at Kildare. Her shrine was similar to those of other pre-Christian Indo-European goddesses like Hestia and Vesta, where a perpetual flame was kept.

Ireland is full of shrines and parishes in her honor. In eastern Ireland, in Faughart Parish, there is a large rock which pools rainwater believed to cure eye ailments. Nearby, another oddly shaped stone is believed to cure headaches. At shrines at Doon Well in Donegal, pilgrims leave a bizarre collection of objects connected with their ailments, as well as money. They also tie pieces of cloth torn from their clothing (called clooties) to holy bushes and trees near holy wells.

Let’s travel back in time to Ireland in the 1800s. On the day before Imbolc, the women of the village would take a small piece of cloth and lay it on a bush outside their home. During the night, as Brigid roamed the village blessing the homes of her followers, she would touch and bless the cloth. The women would collect the cloth in the morning and either tear it into small pieces (Brat Brid (BRAHT BREE]) or save the piece wholecloth (Bratach Bree (BRAH-TOCK BREE) ) as a sacred relic to recharge every year. The strips of cloth would often be sewn into the clothes or jackets of the children as well as given to women for protection throughout the year. The cloth was placed over patients by midwives to ensure safe childbirth and cure sterility. It was also spread across the back of birthing cows to ensure the health of the calves and an abundant supply of milk.

Men would make the Brídeóg, a Brid doll made by fashioning long pieces of straw or rushes around the handle of an old butter churn, wrapping the straw in white cloth, and decorating it with bits of greenery, early spring flowers, shells and pretty stones. A beautiful shell would be placed over her heart. Family members would whisper the dreams and wishes that they hoped to see manifest in the coming year.

After making the doll, extra straw would be gathered and woven into a Brigit’s Cross. The cross pattern differed depending on the region. Old crosses from previous years would be moved to the rafters or attic and new crosses hung in their place near the entryways of the dwelling. Crosses woven by the children would be hung on the wall over their beds. Brigit’s crosses were especially thought to protect the household and its inhabitants from fire and lightening. Throughout the year, the crosses would be taken down when a Brigit blessing is needed: the healing of a sick child; tucked between the mattress to assist in conception; or placed upon a basket of seed being carried out to the garden for planting.

Later in the day the family would set the table for a special feast. Those who made the Bride doll would place her on the threshold next to the open door. The men would get on their knees before the doll (the traditional gesture of respect for the Brideog) and shout into the house, “Go on your knees, open your eyes, and admit Brigit!” The celebrants inside would answer, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to the holy woman!” The Brideog would be carried into the house and leaned against a leg of the feasting table. The feast would begin with a prayer of thanks.

As the evening wound down, the women of the household would gather up the last of the straw and fashion an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle called “leaba Brid” or “the bed of Brid”. They would place the Brid doll in the bed near the hearth and would place a small straight wand of birch (“slatag Brid”) with the bark peeled in the bed beside the figure. The ashes from the hearth fire would be brushed with a birch branch so marks from Brigit’s wand or her footprint would prove she had visited during the night. If no marks were found, incense would be burned on the hearth or near the spot where the bed was placed as an offering. People would place a small dish of butter on the windowsill, and the next day would kindle a new hearth fire or a candle lit in honor of Brigid.

After the feast, people would form a procession and carol from house to house, parading with their Brid doll and offering songs, blessings, and entertainment to the families who live there. These people, called Brideogs, would dress in unusual clothes and wear funny hats. A pretty young woman would carry the doll. At each door they would ask for admittance to the house (it is considered very bad luck to be uncivil to a Brideog) and everyone would file in. The procession would entertain the household with song, rhymes and music on flute, violin, and later, accordion and recite a prepared Brigit blessing for them. If the household did not have one, they would be presented with a Brigit’s cross for protection and blessings through the year. Before going, the family would present the Brideogs with an item of food, especially one associated with dairy, to be eaten later at the feast.

Outside the village, people would visit holy wells to bathe and be healed. Legends tell of lepers who washed in these sacred waters and were cured of their leprosy. For farmers, it was the beginning of the agricultural year. Preparations for spring sowing, hiring of farm workers for the coming season, fishermen taking out their boats after staying in for the winter season, seaweed gathering on the coast to be used for fertilizer, and the gathering of shellfish all begin at that this time. The larder of the housewife and the hay stores of the farmer were also checked to make sure that only half had been consumed.

Invocation – light candle

Victorious Brigit,
Glory of kindred,
Noble person,
Perilous oath
Far-flung flame.
Gaeldom’s foster-mother,
Support of strangers,
Spark of wisdom,
Daughter of Dubthach (pronounced DOO-ah),
High-minded lady,
Victorious Brigit,
The living one of life.

Of the first fire, she sings –
Of the first fire of Spring, she sings
Her voice ringing clear in the cold winter air
As she rises and gathers her things.

In the first light, she yawns –
in the first light of dawn, she yawns,
The grove is asleep in Brigit’s fair keep
and the door fills with mist from the lawns.
In her bare feet, she walks –
in her bare feet, in the frost, she walks
She walks to the well, her buckets to fill,
where they’ve hung strips of colorful cloth.
Like water the Spring shall rise –
like water, the Spring, she cries, shall rise!
When weather is harsh, and the reeds in the marsh
bend with the snow and the ice.
So sweet is the song of the water –
so sweet is the singing of fire and water
She pours in the pot all the water she’s got
to heat for her sons and her daughters.
Of the sacred fire, she shouts!
The sacred fire’s gone out! she shouts,
But no one hears through the sleep in their ears,
she’s the only one up and about.
So singing she carries the wood –
so singing she carries the load of wood.

She might as well sing, she’s done everything,
yet her people are kind and good.
But sometimes the people forget
Sometimes the people, says Brigit, forget.
So she kindles the flame, and she calls it by name,
and it rises and comes to her yet.
Of the first fire, she sings –
of the first fire burning, she sings –
Then she disappears, like the smoke in the air,
like the unseen beginnings of Spring.

Now we will travel to a special place where we will receive a healing blessing from Brigid. Close your eyes, feeling your feet on the ground and your breath gradually slowing down. In your minds eye, you are in a district in the midst of green and heather-covered hills, before an ancient well. Next to the well grows a mountain-ash tree laden with red berries, which redden the pool as they sink. Before the well appears a venerable figure, luminous but human, the figure of a woman in white. She kneels beside the well and looks into the water. You ask her name and she answers Brigid. She asks you to follow as she rises and begins walking along a tree-studded track through grassy hills. Small white flowers are just beginning to appear at the base of grand oaks. Bird calls fill the air. The sound is sweet and musical, and you feel yourself lighten as you go.   Notice that all your earthly cares have been deposited in the well behind you, allowing you to fully experience the life that is around and within you. Brigid points to a circle of birch.   As she indicates, you can see the inside of the tree as if the bark were removed. Xylem and phloem, the cells that transport water and sugar, are wakening. It is spring, the time of quickening, when the sugars begin to rise in the trees. At the base of the birch is a small burrow. Tentatively, a rabbit pokes its head out of the hole and peers at you. It nuzzles the soil at the base of the trees, and you can see that it is awakening from its long winter nap. Small green shoots sprout forth from the birch branches, and tiny leaves appear neon green. You begin to notice that it is not only the birches that are awakening. Brigid points to a lively stream a ways on, and you stop and listen as the bubbling brook cascades across the hillside. It is the time of creativity and planting seeds. There are things that you wish to plant in your own garden. What are they? Have you been wishing to start a new project, begin a new practice, or continue a long-neglected one? Perhaps a new friendship you wish to grow, or a language you want to learn? This is the time of year that is particularly special for the birthing of new ideas and plans. Brigid was not only goddess to midwives, helping deliver babies, but also helped birth projects and spark creativity. What quiet voice within has been whispering in your ear, asking for attention? Turn your attention to that voice now. Listen to what it has to say. (pause) Give it the time it needs to express itself. Maybe it speaks to you in pictures, ideas, or other senses. Be patient. It wants your attention (pause)   When you have given voice to that spark of creativity within, take leave of the bubbling brook and follow Brigid back along the track. As you go, notice small details: the tiny blossoms on the first spring flowers, shining in the sun. The way that the shadows and light play on the waving grass. The quiet sound of wind and birdsong, and your own breath. (pause) After some time you return to the well.   Brigid stands next to the well and points to the ash tree that you first spied dropping its red berries into the pool. She motions for you to tear a piece of your clothing and hold it in your hands, asking for whatever blessing you need from her. The blessing that you need may be spiritual, emotional, physical, or mental. With the request firmly in your mind, tie the cloth to the branch. Then take a deep drink of the cold spring water that Brigid ladles from the well. Feel the draught nourishing you, knowing that you are being healed even as it touches your lips. Brigid is looking upon you, smiling. The bright one reaches out and gently touches your brow, and now your brow is also radiant. Allow her healing blessing to completely infuse you. Know that it is a powerful medicine and that your spirit is now at peace.   Allow yourself to gaze at this lovely woman as she stands in front of you. She begins to sing a song of woven words and lullaby, and you feel yourself gradually sinking to the ground and falling to a light slumber. (pause) When you awake, you are alone in the glen, the well reflecting the bright spring sunshine. Allow the experience to settle into your bones. (pause) As you are ready, come back to this room, feeling your feet on the ground, your back against the chair, your breathing steady. You are here.

(standing with candle) Thank you Brigid for being with us on this special day. May you stay with us and help us with the seeds we planted. May you nourish those seeds throughout the year, and may the healing boon that you graciously granted fill our hearts and spirits with ease.  May you help us nourish not only ourselves, but also the earth that is so precious.  All hail Brigid!

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