Imbolc or Imbolg (Em-bowl/g) was not traditionally a sabbat, but rather a day in which to honor the Goddess or Earth who was slowly turning the world back to spring. Winter was an extremely harsh season for our pagan ancestors with many people dying of disease or malnutrition. It's not surprising that our ancestors therefore set aside a day, midwinter to be exact, to perform sympathetic magic to lure spring.
Over the years, Imbolc has changed names many times, but most Anglo-Saxon countries celebrate some form of the holiday. In Ireland, where much of the lore for Imbolc originates, it is known as St. Bridget's Day; in France it's the Feast Day of St. Blaize; and here in the United States we call it Groundhog Day. Traditionally in Ireland, the day was a holy day to honor the Great Mother Brigid in her guise as the bride of the young Sun God. It was customary for young women, and sometimes young men, to dress as Brigid in old, worn clothing and carry her image through the town asking for alms for "poor Biddy." Giving to her was thought to bring a good harvest. Her festival was so ingrained in Irish culture that the Catholic Church was forced to turn her into a saint and renamed the holiday accordingly. It is also viewed as a crossroads day in Ireland, a day in which spirits seek the safety of a crossroads and in which people can bury their negativity at a crossroads to trap it for good.
Imbolc falls on February 2nd, and marks the midway point of winter. The name Imbolc means "ewe's milk" as this was the time when pregnant ewe's began lactating. Of course this was something to celebrate during a season short of food and was considered to mean winter was coming to an end. Honey Milk, a concoction of ewe's milk, honey, cider, and mashed apples, was commonly drunk to celebrate the holiday.
Imbolc is also known as Candlemas, a name which derives from the traditional lighting of candles to lure back the sun. The most popular candle lighting custom among Anglo-Saxon cultures is to have a young woman dress as the Goddess and enter the ritual with a circle of candles. The circle of candles is known as a Sun Wheel and represents the Wheel of the Year being warmed by the returning sun. It wasn't until the Norse invaded that this tradition changed to wearing the candles around the head, a tradition found in their Yule tradition.
Traditional foods for Imbolc come from the Celts, French and Swedes and tend to be round in shape and contain milk and honey. Pancakes and waffles made with rich cream are still a tradition in Sweden, especially on farms and in towns where the economy is based on milk. Honey cakes, a French dessert, are also common in many traditions along with warmed ewe's milk.
Although we commonly associate the heart with Valentine's Day, it was originally a symbol of Imbolc. Many traditional Valentine's Day cards include bright red hearts, the symbol of love, and sometimes young women awaiting for their affections to be returned by a lover (Goddess waiting for the God). This tradition also has roots in an ancient Druidic ritual which included removing the heart of a live white bull and reading the final convulsions and appearance for clues to the future. I'm glad we have moved away from this barbaric tradition.
Finally, Imbolc is the traditional time to collect stones for magical purposes. If you are in need of new stones, this is the day to do it.
I hope this has been informative. How do you celebrate Imbolc in your home? Do you celebrate using any of these traditions?
To learn more, please read the Imbolc Correspondences post.