Spring is in the Air!

Blackthorn blooming at Imbolc.

Blackthorn blooming at Imbolc.

Snowdrops at a creek -- photo by Tony Eaglehart

Snowdrops at a creek announce Imbolc. The first blooms of snowdrops or blackthorns or the first birth of the new lambs were often considered the announcement of Imbolc’s arrival. (photo by Tony Eaglehart)

Although the recent weather in some parts of the country might make it hard to believe, the Celtic — and magical! — festival of Imbolc, celebrated February 1-2, was considered the first day of spring in Celtic cultures and across Europe in general during the medieval period. Although we nowadays generally consider the solstice or equinox the first day of a season (December 21 as the first day of winter, March 21 as the first day of spring, June 21 as the first day of summer, and September 21 as the beginning of autumn), those days were previously considered the mid-seasons. (That is why we can sing Christmas carols about “midwinter” in December and have Midsummer night dreams in June!) The traditional changes of the seasons were the “quarter days” which marked the midpoints between the mid-seasons. So we get the Celtic/magical festivals of Samhain (October 31, the first day of winter), Imbolc (February 1-2, the beginning of spring), Beltane (May 1, the first day of summer), and Lammas (August 1, the beginning of autumn).

The season of Lent often begins sometime shortly after Imbolc. “Lent” is itself the Anglo-Saxon word for “spring.” Yellow daffodils, which bloom early, were often called “Lent lilies” to distinguish them from the white “Easter lilies” which would bloom slightly later in the season.

Because Imbolc is the beginning of spring, it is often associated with various means of predicting the coming weather which is so crucial during the planting season of agricultural societies. Hence, we consult the groundhog to determine if he sees his shadow or not in order to know if cold and snow will last another six weeks or not. In Serbia, a bear who wakes from his hibernation to stumble out of his cave and see his shadow will know whether to go back to sleep for another six weeks or not, based on whether he sees his shadow.

Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.

Rowan and Other Celtic Trees

A rowan tree, which the Norse said the first woman was made from and the Celts said protects against witchcraft.

I have been doing research recently for a new novel, Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes which will involve the dearg-due again. (Readers first met this character in the Come Hell or High Water trilogy; she is featured on the cover of Part 2: Rising.) I have discovered some fascinating tales about pigs and acorns as well as cauldrons of salmon stew–a perennial favorite!

I have also discovered a lot about trees in European folklore or mythology in general and in Celtic folklore in particular. Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle’s feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood. The Norse said that the first woman was carved from the trunk of a rowan tree just as the first man was carved from the trunk of an ash tree. The Celts had many, MANY stories about rowan trees but I will keep the details of those to myself–so as not to spoil the plot twists that might develop in Earth to Earth.

Oak trees were also important. The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves (the word Druid was probably a Gaelic derivation of their word for oak, Duir, and meant “men of the oaks”). Mistletoe, probably the Druids’ most potent and magical plant, frequently grew on oak trees and its presence was believed to indicate the hand of God having placed it there in a lightning strike.

Yew trees were also held sacred in pre-Christian times. Folk no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground) and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. The Celts were also familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles, which can prove fatal, and which may have further contributed to its connections with death. Shakespeare too was familiar with these qualities when he had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew which included “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse”.

St. Brigid’s Day 2016

Legend says that while St. Brigit sat alongside a dying man one night, she picked up a handful of rushes from the floor and wove a cross, explaining the Gospel to the dying man as she made the cross. Nowadays many make similar crosses and hang them up to protect their house or barn until the next February.

Legend says that while St. Brigit sat alongside a dying man one night, she picked up a handful of rushes from the floor and wove a cross, explaining the Gospel to the dying man as she made the cross. Nowadays many make similar crosses and hang them up to protect their house or barn until the next February.

Saint Brigit of Kildare or Brigid of Ireland (c. 451–525) is one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Patrick and Columba. Irish hagiography makes her an early Irish Christian nun, abbess, and founder of several monasteries of nuns, including that of Kildare in Ireland, which was famous and was revered. Her feast day is 1 February, which was formerly celebrated as a pagan festival (Imbolc) marking the beginning of spring and the lambing season.

Once a leprous woman asked her for milk, but there was none available so St. Brigid gave her cold water instead. The water turned into milk and when she had drunk it, the woman was healed.

Like her mentor St. Patrick, Brigid was fond of ale and is reputed to have been the best brewer in the land. She supplied beer out of one barrel to eighteen different churches. This single barrelful not only supplied these eighteen different churches, but each church had enough ale to last from Maundy Thursday until Trinity Sunday.

One of the most prettiest legends concerning Saint Brigid tells us that another version of her name was “Bride” and as “St. Bride” she was the patroness of the Knights of Chivalry. They began the custom of calling the girls they each married their own “brides” or “Brigits;” and that from the Knights of Chivalry the word bride came into general usage in the English language.

In very traditional homes, two devout practices are still observed on the Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast Day (February 1st). A strip of cloth called “brat Bhride” (Brigid’s mantle) is hung outside the door. A loaf of oat bread baked in the shape of a cross and a sheaf of straw are left on the windowsill. For on that night, Brigid travels through the land with her red-eared cow bestowing blessings on those who keep the old ways.