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Although each of the cross-quarter days has Celtic roots, Imbolc may be the most Celtic-influenced of the Wiccan Sabbats. While it’s true that some forms of Wicca take their inspiration for this holiday from other peoples of pre-Christian Europe, such as the Greeks or the Norse, the most widely used name for is still Imbolc (or “Imbolg,” in some areas).
The celebration of Imbolc in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man goes back into pre-written history, and this feast is mentioned in some of the earliest surviving Irish literature. The significance of the cross-quarter day may even predate the Celts themselves, in fact—some of the neolithic monuments in Ireland are actually aligned so that the Sun lights up their inner chambers on this day.
Many Wiccans borrow more than just the name of the Sabbat from the Celts—they also honor the goddess Brighid, who was traditionally the central focus of Imbolc celebrations in Celtic lands. Like the Wiccan goddess, Brighid is three-fold, or “triune” goddess, with aspects that align with the Maiden, Mother and Crone archetypes. In Irish mythology, she rules the three areas of smithcraft, healing and poetry, all of which were powerful activities in Celtic culture. As a healer, Brighid is associated with many springs and holy wells that were known for their healing, purifying properties. Her cauldron of inspiration sustained poets and bards, and her co-creative powers extended to midwifery and crafting. Her rule over smithcraft, or metalworking—the alchemical art of transforming raw materials into weaponry and tools—is part of her association with the Element of Fire. In addition, she is said to have been born at sunrise, with a tower of flame bursting from her head and reaching all the way to heaven. She is called “keeper of the sacred flame,” and in pre-Christian times her priestesses kept a perpetual fire in her honor at a temple in Kildare, Ireland.
Brighid is also considered the guardian of home and hearth, and was invoked to protect the herds and assist in providing a fruitful harvest. She was associated with the cow, a symbol of motherhood and life sustenance, as well as with the light half of the year, so her presence at this time in late winter was very important to the people.
On Imbolc Eve, Brighid was said to visit the households of those who invited her, and bestow blessings on the inhabitants. Various customs for inviting her were practiced throughout the lands where she was worshipped.
The most common included making her a bed out of a basket with white bedding, and making a straw doll-like figure of Brighid (called a Brídeóg). These corn dollies, as they are also called, were carried from door to door so each household could offer a gift to the goddess.
Families would have a special meal and save some of the food and drink to leave outside for Brighid, along with clothing or strips of cloth for her to bless. The following morning, the family would inspect the ashes of their smoored fire for any marks that showed Brighid had indeed entered the house. The cloth would be brought back inside, now imbued with healing and protective powers. “Brighid’s crosses” were also made from stalks of wheat, formed into a square, an equilateral cross, or an ancient protection symbol resembling a counter-clockwise swastika that was found in various cultures throughout the ancient world. These were hung over the entrances of homes and stables to protect the household from fire, lightning, and any threat to the animals and the harvest. The crosses would be left hanging throughout the year, until the following Imbolc, and are still used in some places today.
Brighid was such a central part of Irish pagan culture that the Christian Church eventually turned her into a saint as part of their religious conquest, and Imbolc is known throughout Ireland as “Brighid’s Day.” The cross-quarter day was further coopted across Europe by the invention of Candlemas, a Christian holy day that involved the making and blessing of candles for the coming year. Many Wiccans and other Pagans with less specifically-Celtic leanings also use the name Candlemas for this Sabbat.