(Art: Imbolc, Mary Dugan)
Now we’ve made our way through our forest walk, and honored Brighid at Her several shrines, the time is coming nigh to arrive at Her Sacred Well to welcome Her return to the Land. We know this cosmic event and celebration as Imbolc.
So, when is the right time to celebrate?
There are several ways to respond to this question and approach determining which timing is best for each, where we each may be.
As Brighid hails from the Gaelic lands of Ireland and Scotland, one might align one’s celebration with the traditional Gaelic observance of Brighid’s Day which begins on the day’s eve, 31 January, and continues through the following day, 1 February. Beginning celebrations on the eve prior to the day hearkens back to Celtic time-reckoning, in which days begin at sunset and are followed through to the next sunset.
As can be observed by viewing the art imagery above, Imbolc for the Gaelic people traditionally marks the slowly growing power of the sun and first lengthening of the days after solstice, hence the return of the first green growth seen on the land, which was able to support the over-wintered ewes. They were bred the year before so they’d be ready to birth at this time. The fresh green growth allowed them to receive the nourishment they needed to produce milk for their babies, and so the Gaelic peoples were also able to enjoy fresh milk again. The first snowdrops growing and blooming announced the season on the land as ewes began to give birth.
Later, the Catholic Church designated its feast of Candlemas near this time, on 2 February. This was said to be the time when candles were not burned so prolifically as they had been since autumn fell, as the days were growing noticeably longer now. Churches also dipped and consecrated their annual supply of candles at this time for the coming year.
The 20th-century Wiccan sacred calendar adopted the Gaelic feast of Imbolc, yet scheduled it using the timing of the Catholic Candlemas, even conflating the Christian name with the polytheistic holiday. In the US, Groundhog Day became a popular observance for prognosticating the timing of the arrival of spring, further entrenching the timing of 2 February, on which it is observed.
Some prefer to wait for visible signs of green growth on the land itself, so they may ritualistically greet Brighid’s return when it is apparent. Others claim the solar strength is universal and not dependent upon regional terrestrial manifestations, so is a better marker for the day.
And of course, many Brighid devotees and members of pagan religions honoring the Neopagan Wheel of the Year reside in the southern hemisphere, where late January and early February are not evidencing new growth at all, or seeing Brighid’s return to the land, but are instead seeing the fullness of the Harvest season at Lughnasadh, being on their own solar journey through their seasons.
Because this is a regionally-derived celebration, it speaks specifically to the terrestrial life visible there at this time, determined by its latitudinal position on the earth and hence the seasonality it experiences from that positionality. Naturally, very different locales with very different orientations to the sun and its light will have their own annual, regional observances to align with, which may or may not mesh well with what derives from a very particular place. Some in such places might welcome Brighid back to the land when the phenomenon is witnessed where they are, whenever during the year that happens, while others may wish to keep to the religious observance of the Wheel of the Year dates wherever they dwell.
Lastly, some pagans and polytheists choose to align their observance of this so-called Cross-Quarter Day by celestial reckoning on that day on which falls exactly between solstice and equinox, usually around 3 or 4 February. This timing also aligns with one of my personal favorite modes of holiday reckoning, by Stone Time: when the beams of the rising or setting sun illuminate the inner chambers of stone chambered cairns dotted around the Irish and Scottish landscapes. Though they dated to the megalithic period, far earlier than when the Celts arrived with their cultural lifestyle and agrarian calendar, the Celtic Fire Festivals are all marked by one or more of these stone chambers, showing that recognition of these annual moments, and their importance to the peoples of those lands, predates the Celts and is part of a very deep ancestral tradition. I resonate especially with the imagery of the sun illuminating these chambers as a Brighidine devotee because it symbolizes to me the Light of Brighid shining into my soul, illuminating the chamber of my heart center, and so filling me with illumination.
The ultimate answer is, which religion or tradition one follows, or which personal inclination speaks best to one, determines when it is best for one to celebrate, as all the above scenarios have differing reasons for so doing. And of course, some groups choose to observe on a weekend closest to the holiday itself for the simple convenience of celebrants and attendees. I will share my Imbolc observance posts here to be ready for those celebrating as early as 31 January, and of course they may be used at whatever ritual timing is deemed most suitable for the reader.