Of the four Irish fire festivals Imbolc is the most family oriented, although it does also have wider community aspects. Celebrating Imbolc as a modern Irish polytheist, or indeed any Celtic polytheist drawn to this holiday, is an opportunity to involve the entire family, especially children, in the traditions. While we don’t have any surviving information about the ancient ways that this day was celebrated we do have a plethora of native traditions to draw on, with the role of saint Brigit and the pagan Goddess Brighid often blurred and easily shifted fully into paganism. With some slight alteration all of these traditions can be celebrated by any pagan family to honor Imbolc and the holiday’s main deity, Brighid.
A basic overview of the Irish traditions, most of which were actively practiced into the last century, is helpful in giving the reader both an understanding of the holiday and of ways that it can be adapted for modern family practice. There were often regional variations in practice and even in the tone of the celebrations, from solemn to comical, which created a wide array of different traditions associated with this holiday (Danaher, 1972). For the purposes of modern celebration by a pagan household it would be best to focus on specific traditions and choose one tone for the festival, rather than trying to include everything noted here.
Generally it was the daughters of the household who played the main roles, although the mother might also be called to do so if there were no daughters. This is in contrast to other traditions which place the father as the main actor in any rituals, divination, or prayers, and establish the more domestic tone of Imbolc. The prominence of women and daughters also demonstrates the importance placed on Brighid at this holiday, with the women and girls often being the main intercessors between Brighid and the family in the ritual enacted or playing the role of Brighid herself. Imbolc also places a strong emphasis on children’s participation that is lacking at other holidays which tend to have a more adult tone.
Weaving new Brighid’s crosses – symbols of protection, health, and blessing – was an important Imbolc tradition in many places. One ritual that was enacted in Connaught, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Ulster before the Brighid’s crosses were woven for the new year on the eve of the festival was for the eldest daughter to take the part of Brighid and wait outside carrying the material for the project (Danaher, 1972). She would then knock three times, proclaiming herself to be Brighid requesting entrance; she is warmly welcomed in and the family sits down to dinner with an elaborate blessing prayer (Danaher, 1972). The meal often prominently featured dairy products, and if the family was wealthy might also include fresh mutton (Danaher, 1972). After eating the meal the family would sit and weave the new crosses, with the largest sprinkled with water and hung up on the wall until the next Imbolc (Danaher, 1972). In parts of Leitrim there was also a children’s practice to use a small rectangle of wood and with potato paste attach peeled rushes in shapes symbolizing the moon, sun, and stars which would be hung up alongside the woven crosses (Danaher, 1972).
Another tradition was to create an effigy or doll, called a brideog (little Brighid), representing Brighid. The Brideog might be made of straw from the last sheaf of the harvest, leftover rushes from weaving the crosses, a re-purposed child’s doll, or the dash from the butter churn. The effigy would be decorated with a white dress and mask or carved turnip, and might be comical, grotesque, or beautiful in appearance (Danaher, 1972). In some parts of Ireland the Brideog was carefully and elaborately decorated with shells, crystals, and other natural adornments (Carmichael, 1900). In some places, including Ulster, Connaught, Leinstir and Munster, the children would process from house to house carrying the brideog and pronouncing Brighid’s blessing on each home (Danaher, 1972). At each home the people give gifts to the effigy, and the mother of the household gives food to the children in the procession, usually cheese, butter, or bread; this food would later be used by the children for a feast of their own (Carmichael, 1900). In other areas including Cork, Clare, Galway, Mayo, and Kildare a brideog might not be used but rather the unmarried girls would form the procession with one of their number chosen to represent Brighid (Danaher, 1972). In Ulster it was said that the chosen girl wore a crown of rushes, called a crothán Brighite, and carried a shield (sgaith Bhrighite) on her arm; she carried Brighid’s crosses to hand out telling each household that it was the sword of Brighid (Danaher, 1972). In other areas the procession might collect food from each house, and in some cases might be comprised entirely of men or boys who would play music at each house (Danaher, 1972). In these cases the procession was often referred to as ‘Biddy Boys’ (EstynEvans, 1957).
In those homes that used an effigy as a Brideog a small bed would be prepared, made of rushes or of birch twigs, on the eve of Imbolc (Estyn Evans, 1957). In some cases the older women in the home would prepare or shape a small cradle, the leaba Bride or bed of Brighid, for the effigy to sleep in (Carmichael, 1900). In this tradition the effigy is made with great care and a ritual is enacted, much like the one mentioned earlier with the reeds for the crosses, where the effigy is taken outside and invited in. In one tradition the women of the house prepare everything and then one goes and stands in the open door, bracing on the door jambs, and loudly invites Brighid in three times, telling her that her bed is ready (Carmichael, 1900). The brideog is placed in the bed with a small wand, the slat Brighid, which may be made of birch, hazel, willow or another white wood (Carmichael, 1900).
Read more in Issue one 2014 of Air n-Aithesc