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The story of Imbolc (and the Groundhog!)

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 3 comments

As (True) Highlanders we are shaped by many things. Our shared history, traditions and culture have, for better or worse, played a large part in defining who we really are. On the eve of Imbolc as we gaze behind us and consider the rituals of the past, it’s only natural to consider whether these ancient traditions have a place in the modern world. Students of history commonly remark about how they study the past in order to better understand the present, so, if we look at Imbolc, what does it tell us about where we are now?

Imbolc, which falls on the 1st of February, is one of the cornerstones of the Celtic calendar. For rural Highlanders the success of the new farming season was of great importance. As winter stores were getting low, Imbolc rituals were performed to ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later. Over time, the church swallowed many facets of this of this festival, mainly due to Highlanders reluctance to lose such an important part of their culture and the churches pragmatism in adapting seemingly conflicting ideologies when it suited.

Bridhe's Cross

Bridhe’s Cross

So Imbolc became Candlemass and the pagan goddess Bridhe associated with it became St Bride. In the Outer Hebrides however, the local people clung to their traditions a bit tighter and customs evolved there into a unique spiritual hybrid, half-way between the modern Christian festival held on the first of February and the traditional paganism of our ancestors.

Candlemass itself has very convoluted origins. In its efforts to christianize the popular pagan earth deity Bridhe, the church renamed her St Bride and gave her a colourful back story, where she was transported miraculously to Bethlehem to attend the nativity of Christ. The church also borrowed from ancient Rome, where a similar rite at this time of year honored the Goddess Juno Februata (the origin of this month’s name)  whose worshippers on this day would carry burning candles to honour her. In the Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland in particular, the original Goddess Brighid was still held in high esteem and it is there that the customs and associated rituals took longest to die out.

On January 31st Óiche Fheil Bhrighide which means the Eve of the festival of Brighid in Gaelic, the last sheaf of corn from the previous harvest would be dressed as Brighid and taken from house to house by young girls. They dressed and decorated this effigy with sparkly shells and crystals and any small flowers and greenery growing at that time of year. A very bright shell or crystal was placed over her heart. This was called reul iuil Brighde, the guiding star of Bride. The girls, dressed in white with their hair down, carried the Brighde in a procession, singing a song to her and visiting every house. Everyone was expected to revere her and make an offering. Mothers gave her a Brighde Bannock, cheese or roll of butter. Finally they went to one house to make a feast, the men being allowed in after a while. Much of the food was kept and distributed later to the poor.

Brigid

In another tradition, the older women of each household made a cradle called the bed of Bride. They made a figure of her from a sheaf of oats decorated with ribbons, shells and crystals. The woman would to the door and called softly in Gaelic “Brighde’s bed is ready” or “Brighde, come in, thy welcome is truly made”. In so doing, they invoked the spirit of Brighde and she was truly present in the figure they had made. They then placed Brighde in the bed with a straight stick beside her (the slachdan Brighde).  Then they smoothed over the ashes of the hearth, protecting them from draughts. In the morning they would eagerly examine them. They were very pleased if they found the mark of Brighde’s wand, but were overjoyed if they found her actual footprint, as that proved she was truly with them that night and they would have good fortune throughout the coming year

A more common custom, that has survived in many rural areas is the weaving of St Brides crosses from rushes. These would be constructed the evening before and hung up around the house for good fortune.

In contrast to Samhain, and  maybe befitting a festival originally devoted to a Goddess, most of the ritual activity centred on the women and girls of the village. It was also a more personal and localised celebration rather than a community affair. This aspect was also carried forward into the Christian era when the festival tended to be celebrated with the family at home as opposed to a communal act of worship in the church.

There is also a close connection with the oystercatcher whose Gaelic name is gille bridhe, or servant of Bridhe. In ancient lore, Bridhe would summon them to her hand and send them off to guide sailors to shore in stormy seas. Hearing their distinctive call for many is the sign that spring is on its way.

New beginings

Holy wells were also traditionally visited on this day, visitors would pray for health while walking sunwise around them and would leave scraps of cloth dipped in the water on nearby trees. Since the coming of the Reformed Church in the Hebrides there are few wells with saintly dedications however for the curious one still exists beside a ruined chapel on a Melbost croft. Noted by the Ordnance Survey as Teampull Bhrighid, this is a concrete link to past histories. Who knows for sure what kind of rituals would have taken place on this day here hundreds of years ago.

In Barra, lots were traditionally cast for the best iolachan iasgaich or fishing-banks, on Bride’s Day. After church and a sermon on the virtues and blessings of Bride the priest would urge upon the congregation to avoid disputes and quarrels over their fishing. Having come out of church, the men would then cast lots for the next years fishing-banks right at the church door.

No mention of Imbolc would be complete without some mention of contemporary tradition. Rituals evolve over time and often as people drift around the world they are adapted to suit new homes and circumstances. As we have seen with settlers to America carving pumpkins as opposed to turnips on that other important pagan festival of Samhain then we can also trace back the origins of Groundhog Day to Europe. On this day every year the eyes of America turn to a small town in Pennsylvania popularised by a 1993 film called Groundhog Day. When Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow, if it is cloudy, spring will arrive early but if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its den, and winter weather will persist for six more weeks

The origins of this specific custom are recorded as Lupercalia, a pagan Roman purification ritual which took place  on the 15th of February on the old Roman calendar, when a hedgehog was in charge of the weather divination. Such beliefs survived the Christianization of Europe and instead attached themselves to Candlemass as folklore. European settlers in North America kept the pagan tradition alive, but with the native groundhog. The tradition, although not observed in Scotland anymore, is the subject of a Gaelic proverb:

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’s a victory of sorts for the old ways over the new when millions of people know what Groundhog Day is but are unfamiliar with Candlemass. But more than that it shows the enduring attraction of tradition, and if anything, paganism just sounds like good fun. In these uncertain times when some people struggle to make sense of the world around them, ritual can give life meaning. Whether you are watching Punxsutawney Phil live on the internet, lighting a candle or weaving a St Bride’s cross this evening you are part of something bigger, something global, something as relevant as ever.

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Comments (3)
  1. Steve says:

    As usual an awesome essay on our forebears.

  2. Mary says:

    I wish I had seen this before the ritual that was given early on Jan 27th without a true explaintion of Brid. This is a UU church and so new people come to these rituals without a clear understanding of the truth behind it. I am going to attempt to change this but dont want to step on the toes of the guy who is in charge of it. I am going to save this.

  3. Linda Menzies Findlay says:

    Loved this — I have one of the crosses my Irish/American dear friend RIP gave it to me — fascinating story –also the wee hedgehog is my favorite animal from childhood (another story) and last in common The Snowdrops — alway been my favorite winter flower since I was a wee lass — thoroughly enjoyed every word .

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