One of the oldest Irish festivals, records of Imbolc date from 10th Century Irish literature. It was a celebration of the coming Spring and tied to the Goddess Brigid. Later Christianisation of the festival linked it to Saint Brigid of Kildare, a Christian adaptation of the Celtic Goddess created possibly as an act of cultural appropriation.
The origins of the Imbolc festival tradition are in weather divination, which occurred around this time in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and throughout Northern Europe, where a localised festival would centre on a wild animal such as a hedgehog, snake, or badger. If the creature left its home, Spring was near, however if it did not then Winter was not over yet. A similar tradition exists in Punxsutawney and other parts of the USA, following a Pennsylvania Dutch superstition brought over in the settlement of the Americas from Europe, and is known as Groundhog Day. Gaelic particulars to Imbolc included songs and incantations, along with the pounding of the peat, where a lump of peat was gathered in a stocking and then beaten at a doorstep to represent the overcoming of Winter. Celebrations then turned to fires throughout the evening, either at home or with community. Wood would be freshly gathered, recalling Brigid’s own custom of gathering firewood on this day to see her through to Spring. Burning of wood represented purification, as did lighting candles, and was reflecting in the warming of the sun throughout the day. It was also customary to clean the home ready for Spring.
Thig an nathair as an tollAlexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
The eventual Christianisation of Imbolc meant the Goddess Brigid was transformed into Saint Brigid, an early Irish Christian nun. The original concept of Brigid was a fertility goddess who would visit homes in the evening, blessing the inhabitants. Locals would make four-point crosses, known as Brigid’s cross, and hang them over their doors. The effigy of Brigid called a ‘Biddy’ would be paraded through the town, carried by young girls, with a star marked upon its chest. It would be brought door to door to bless the homes that bore crosses. Men would dress in straw hats and masks, and general merrymaking would be had. Then, at dinner, tradition held a place was set for Brigid, with a chair left empty for her, which sometimes contained her effigy. Before the meal, the inhabitants would open the door holding rushes, straw, leaves, or grass, and invite Brigid inside with a wave. Some would circle the home three times. The dry plants would then be used to make a carpet or bed for Brigid to lay upon that night. When the inhabitants retired to bed they would rake the fire ashes smooth and lay out cloth for Brigid to bless, and if in the morning they found signs in the ash of her visiting they would keep the cloth as a healing blessing.
Imbolc is still celebrated as the Feast of Saint Brigid, however through neopaganism and Wicca a new version of the festival has emerged to celebrate the power of women. The concept of a Spring clean has remained in British custom and is still acknowledged during this part of the year.