Imbolc is a festival which pre-dates the arrival of Christianity in Scotland.

The Coming of Christianity

In the dawning of time, when Christian missionaries first arrived on Scotland’s shores, they faced a colossal challenge. They were dealing with a strange mix of peoples: the Dal Riadic people of the West, the indigenous Britons of Strathclyde and the Picts of the East and the migrant Angles of Lothian and Northumbria. These groups were further divided into subtribes. Perhaps the biggest challenge was turning the people away from their old polytheistic beliefs to believing in one God.

But these early Christians, men like Columba and Ninian, had a simple but effective strategy: they superimposed the Christian Calendar over the old calendar of ‘pagan’ festivals. Thus, Christmas replaced Yule for the Germanic peoples and All Saints Day became the festival associated with the Gaelic Samhain. One of the important days in the Celtic year was Imbloc. This was replaced by Candlemas and St Brigid’s Day. However, a closer inspection shows that many of the earlier symbols and rituals were incorporated into this Christian festival.

Candlemas: A very Christian festival?

The twin celebrations of St Brigid’s Day and Candlemas take place across the 1st and 2nd of February, respectfully. Candlemas celebrates the presentation of the Christ child at the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth. In the Jewish faith, a mother was considered impure for six weeks after giving birth, after which she had to attend the Temple to be purified. Candlemas gets its name from the custom of blessing and distributing candles which are then used in a procession prior to the mass.

Thus, Candlemas is a festival of Lights and occurs the day after St Brigid’s Day. In Scotland, it used to include what was known as the Candlemas Bleeze. The good Christian folk would walk in procession to the town or Mercat cross, bearing their candles and torches in their hands. Once they had arrived, they would then light the bleeze or bonfire. Sometimes they would simply burn any clump of gorse or ‘whins’ in the vicinity. Candles would be donated to the church on this day, but this was later replaced with money. Dancing would be held into the evening. Some people would carry around candle stubs from Candlemas, sewn into the corners of their coats.  The stubs were thought to have the power to repel evil.

Candlemas is a celebration of light, rebirth and purification but its origins are older and based on a festival which also involved light, fire, rebirth and purification.

What is Imbolc?

The date when Candlemas was celebrated had been carefully chosen. It matched up with an older festival: Imbolc.  Imbolc (pronounced ‘im’olk’) is one of the four cornerstones of the Celtic calendar, along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. Evidence from the way certain Megaliths align with the sun, would suggest that Imbolc has been important since Neolithic times. The advent of farming bound the early indigenous people of Scotland to the Earth.  Their lives depended on the cycle of the seasons and the rhythm of nature. Each milestone in the farming calendar was marked with a festival: the bounty of the gods was needed for their continued survival.   Imbolc occurred at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It marked the beginning of the lambing season, hence its name: Imbolc means ‘in milk’ or ‘in the belly’.

Like many Celtic festivals, Imbolc festivities centred around the lighting of fires. This was the holy day of the ancient goddess of fire, healing and fertility, Brìde. Of course, in keeping with the early Christian trend, the old Pagan ways were Christianised. The Pagan goddess was canonised and Brìde became Saint Brigit.

Imbolc and La Feìll Brìdhde

There was a natural movement away from the worship of the goddess to La Fèill Brìdhde (Saint Brigit’s Day) but the ties with the old goddess are still there in the folklore and customs associated with Brìde.

In olden times La Feill Brìdhe began on the night of the 31st of January. It was a night when visitors from the Otherworld were said to appear.  In the late 18th century, Hebridean celebrations involved making a bed of hay for Brìde and someone would then call out three times: “a Bhríd, a Bhríd, thig a stigh as gabh do leabaidh” (“Bríd Bríd, come in; thy bed is ready”). A birch wand, would be set by the bed. It represented the wand that Brìde was said to use to make the vegetation start growing again. By the 19th century, the bed had been dispensed with. Instead, the Hebridean women would dance while holding a large cloth and calling out “Bridean, Bridean, thig an nall ‘s dean do leabaidh” (“Bríd, Bríd, come over and make your bed”).

Before going to bed, people would leave items of clothing or strips of cloth outside for Brìde to bless and the ashes from the fire would be raked smooth. In the morning, they would inspect the ashes, looking for a sign that Brìde had visited. The cloth would be brought inside, where they were believed to have acquired the powers of healing and protection.

In addition, people would visit holy wells and pray for health. They would walk ‘sunwise’ around the well. They would then leave offering for Brìde in the form of coins or strips of cloth known as ‘clooties’.

The girls and young unmarried women of the household would make a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brideog and women would weave a Brìde’s Cross out of reeds.

The Cailleach

Brìde was not the only visitor said to make an appearance at this time. The Cailleach or Hag was also said to make nightly appearances between Candlemas and  Fastern’s Een (Shrove Tuesday). She would bring a young boy with her and would do spinning in the household while the good folks of the home slept. In some homes, the belt from the spinning wheel would be removed so the inhabitants would not be woken by the whirring of the wheel. People also kept fresh spring water on hand for she always bathed the boy at the end of the night. They didn’t want to incur her wrath, for then the Cailleach would resort to ‘mischief’ which might include cutting the threads of your own destiny.

Brìde and The Cailleach

In Scottish folklore, Brìde is said to rule over the summer months but as winter approaches, the Cailleach or Hag, takes over as the leading Mother Goddess. It is believed that the Cailleach and Brìde were considered to be two aspects of the same Goddess. Around Candlemas, the Cailleach’s power begins to wane.

Imbolc was believed to be the time when the Cailleach gathered her firewood for the rest of the winter. According to legend, if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. However, if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.

Candlemas and Weather Divination

As a result of folklore about the Cailleach, it is small wonder that Candlemas is often associated with weather divination.

An ancient Scottish rhyme tells us:

 

If Candlemas day be dry and fair,

The half o’ winter to come and mair.

If Candlemas’s day be wet and foul.

The half o’ winter gane at Yule.

 

It was also a time when animals habits were studied. In particular, snakes are associated with Candlemas in Scotland. There was an old Gaelic poem about this day:

 

Thig an nathair as an toll

Là donn Brìde,

Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd

Air leac an làir.

 

The serpent will come from the hole

On the brown Day of Bríde,

Though there should be three feet of snow

On the flat surface of the ground.

 

It is believed that the old tradition of watching to see if snakes or badgers came from their winter dens at Candlemas was a forerunner to America’s Groundhog Day.

Imbolc and Candlemas Greetings

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