The festival of Candlemas or Imbolc is Feb. 2, and for this challenge let’s all light a candle to fructify and brighten our work for the coming year.
As Sarah Connor wrote in her earthweal prompt on Imbolc back in 2021, “The energy of Imbolc … is about new life and renewed life. It’s about creating light and the return of light. It’s about inspiration appearing and implanting. It’s about the start of new ideas, new projects, new creativity.”
Candlemas is a festival of light returning from winter darkness. Its patron is the goddess Brigit, a deity so powerful that the Christian church could only saint her Brighid, a pillar of light on the magnitude of Michael (croziered from the sea-god Manannan) and the early Irish church founders Patrick and Columba.
The ancient rites of Imbolc were centered around fertility, the growth of crops and the birth of sheep and cattle and human children for the sustenance of the community. Fertility rituals carried over into Christendom with the brídeóg (“young Brighid”), effigies of the goddess or saint that fostered fertility — woven crosses and dolls adorned with shells and flowers. — carried by troops of women.
A folk-tale widely told about Brighid locates her prominence next to the Virgin Mary and the light of divine birth. (It also links pagan and Christian deities in a way the one makes way for the next.) Wade MacMorrighan retells it this way in “Rekindling the Rites of Imbolg”:
As Mary was about to be “churched”—or, some say, to bring the Christ child to the Temple—she was journeying to a Church where she met St. Brighid to whom she confessed how shy she was about stepping up to the altar rails before the whole congregation. St. Brighid told her not to worry, and she took a nearby harrow (a sharp forked agricultural tool intended to till the soil in preparation for spring sowing) and placed it on her head, turning the points upward. No sooner had Brighid entered the Church than the points of the harrow miraculously transformed into a glittering crown of glowing candles! Not one eye turned from the Saint as the meek Virgin stepped up to the altar rails until the commencement of the ceremony. The Virgin Mary was so pleased that the saint had preserved her modesty that she decreed that from this time forward 1 February should be held in honor of Brighid the day before the Virgin’s own festival of Purification. It is likely on account of Brighid’s association with midwifery—casting her in the role of a “Light Mother”—as well as the kindling of candles that Alexander Carmichael sought to identify her, not without good cause, as “the Juno of the Gaels.” Brighid may be further identified with a variety of traditional epithets that underscore her association with the soft glow of candlelight, such as Bríde boillsge (“Brighid of brightness”), Lasair dhealrach oir, muime chorr Chriosda (“Radiant flame of gold, most noble foster mother of Christ”), and Bríde non Coinnle (“Brighid of the Candles”).
MacMorrighan also points to rites of purification celebrated in the festival. An early modern translation of Imbolg was “the time that sheep’s-milk comes,” but the Indo-European root Hmelǵ also signifies “purification,” occasionally with the implication of wiping or cleansing ritual tools. Milk was believed a purifier: the Book of Lecan states that milk was the antidote for injuries suffered by poisoned darts, and Brighid, famously unable to eat impure food, got all her sustenance from the milk of a red-eared Otherworld cow. MacMorrighan writes,
The question of the necessity for cleansing rites at the onset of spring celebrated by the convergence of Indo-European cultures … ultimately seem to have their antecedent in the desire to purge oneself after contact or communication with the dead—a procedure that was not uncommon in the ancient world—considering that this more dreadful period of ill omen was generally signified by the previous winter quarter that commenced on November Eve and was officially abrogated by 1 February.
Let us remember we have been chilling recently with the Calleach Bheare, witch of winter. It is now time to rise from her frozen bed.
Eves are important in Celtic reckoning with days beginning on the night before. St. Brigit’s feast day of Feb. 1 is the eve of Candlemas, the holiday which the Church called The Purification of the Virgin Mary. According to Mosaic Law, a mother who had given birth to a son remained unclean for 40 days after birth, in which time she completed her purification in blood. After the 40 days, the new mother was to “bring to the temple a lamb for a holocaust and a young pigeon or turtle dove for sin” (Leviticus 12), where a priest prayed for her and she was cleansed. Forty days after Christmas, that time now arrives. Brigit’s crown of candles, made from a harrow used for spring planting, provided the cleansing light of Candlemas and purifies the Savior’s life to come, the annual round of growth, ebbing, death and resurrection.
There is a divinity for all seasons — a festival for each — and at Imbolc we cleanse winter darkness in the milky glow of candlelit spaces, readying our tools for Spring.
In the environmental movement that have returned many to an earth-centered spirituality. I like to think a third deity now grows out of Christendom, as it once arose from paganism; or a a polarity returning the other way, as the earth’s magnetic poles reverse (183 times in the past 83 million years, by one reckoning). We can now see Mary’s fire purifying Brigit’s grandmother for the deep old work we so desperately now, providing tools for returning to first principals and primary relations with the Earth. Wildest tools are now needed, to break the bonds of petro-capitalism and neoliberalism and get to work saving our planet.
It is a fire we must tend. At the church at Kildare, dedicated to St. Brigit and probably founded over the pagan sanctuary of Brighid, a sacred fire was kept burning continually, tended by a series of 19 nuns and by the saint herself every 20th day. It survived into the 16th century with the suppression of monesteries and re-lit in 1993 in the Market Square, Kildare, by Sr. Mary Teresa Cullen, then congregational leader of the Brigidine Sisters. It burns on today as a beacon of hope in a grieving ecosphere.
That work can be ours, too. The pagan Brighid was also the goddess of crafts, prophecy, divination and poetry; it is by her fires we are inspired and create. We can envision this challenge as singing in her sanctum, each of us holding a candle and singing something pure back to the world.
For myself, the festival is auspicious as I am embarking on a book project about my father’s work founding the community of Columcille in eastern Pennsylvania. Personal relations with my father aside (which had light and dark aspects, as all sons do with fathers), the deepr tale I’m trying to excavate and weave is of how an earth-centered spirituality blossomed there from constant work with the land and a devotion to its mysteries. Rites of purification and prayers for fertile work are essential for me right now as I try to get the story down right. (Ironically, Imbolc has rarely been celebrated at Columcille.)
For this challenge, then, light a candle (or two or three) for the Candlemas or Imbolc of your imagining, to purify and fructify your work and the world’s.
A few poems of that sort I’ve posted below as starter candles.
AT BRIDGET’S WELL
By Doireann Ní Ghríofa
When rain fell on a path of stone,
one by one, we appeared alone.
Each of us wore a different face,
but we were all the same –
drawn by ache to lift green latches,
drawn by want to walk the dark
passage. Past paper stares, we knelt
and wept, we who fed the well in rivulets,
whose plunged wrists trembled
with vessels of blue violets.
We each spoke a spell of stone
and in her gloom heard prayers turn poems.
Ask her, Bríd, what will be
come of us?
Listen. Liquid, the syllables;
the echo, luminous.
A BRIGID’S GIRDLE
Last time I wrote I wrote from a rustic table
Under magnolias in South Carolina
As blossoms fell on me, and a white gable
As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner
Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard.
I was glad of the early heat and the first quiet
I’d had for weeks. I heard the mocking bird
And a delicious, articulate
Flight of small plinkings from a dulcimer
Like feminine rhymes migrating to the north
Where you faced the music and the ache of summer
And earth’s foreknowledge gathered in the earth.
Now it’s St Brigid’s Day and the first snowdrop
In County Wicklow, and this a Brigid’s Girdle
I’m plaiting for you, an airy fairy hoop
(Like one of those old crinolines they’d trindle),
Twisted straw that’s lifted in a circle
To handsel and to heal, a rite of spring
As strange and lightsome and traditional
As the motions you go through going through the thing.
—from The Spirit Level)
FOR EQUILIBRIUM: A BLESSING
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.
As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.
Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.
As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.
May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of God.
— from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Invocations and Blessings (2008)