The Origins of Imbolc/Candlemas

Today we come to Imbolc. It is the first festival of the year by our Roman calendar.  And like Yule, it is celebrated in different ways depending upon your tradition and point of view.  By some traditions it celebrates the young God growing within the Goddess.  In fact, the word Imbolc means “in the belly” in the Celtic tongue.

Imbolc is a celebration of the promise of new life upon the Earth.  It’s not just about the birth of the God, but about all the life that is about to spring from the womb of the earth as the season grows warmer.  It is also often considered a festival to Bridgit, the Celtic Goddess of birth, fertility, inspiration, forgecraft and metal smithing, and domestic arts like cooking and healing.  For many it is yet another time to begin anew in your life.

In addition to being called Imbolc, it is also known as Oimelc, or “Ewe’s milk” in reference to how calves are born and begin to suckle. In some cultures that concept is considered to be re-affirming of the Goddess’s promise of a new year.

In the second version, it is called Candlemas. I’m sure that many of you have at least heard this name.  Candlemas is the festival of lights. In this version the God is honored in a festival centered on purification.  The winter is coming to an end. It is considered a time of purification because it is often a time in which many witches renew their vows to the God and Goddess.

It is no coincidence that that this is the midpoint of winter.  The second of February (Imbolc or Candlemas) is six weeks from the winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  Groundhogs day is a runoff of these old traditions, as the people tried to predict where the winter would end or how soon the warmth of spring would come.

There are many similar holidays in other nations. In America Puxatawny Phil tells us if there will be a longer winter. In England, it is the sighting of the first cuckoo of the year and in Australia it’s the kookaburra. All of them relate to a far older myth however.

In Greek mythology, Persephone is abducted by Hades and taken into the underworld. Her mother is so distraught by her loss that she refuses to seed the ground. Hecate goes to Zeus pleading for help, lest the humans that follow them perish without the growth of the Earth.  She tells the king of the Gods that Demeter refuses to touch the earth with her warmth until her daughter is returned. However, her daughter has already eaten or drank from the bounty of the underworld and is bound to Hades.

So an accord is struck, that Persephone will return to her mother to seed the ground, but will reside with Hades during the other half of the year.

Magickal rites performed at this time of year generally relate to purification, reaffirmation, rededication, and picking up those pesky new year resolutions you may have already failed to keep.

This is also where the concept of Lent comes from. The site linked here has a wealth of information about the holiday in addition to what I have already shared. It also has several cited sources to further back up its’s claims. It’s one of the places I like to send people when I’m explaining the holidays. And it’s great if you want some dissertations from a Druid perspective.

February has been a time of purification in many religions.  Those who originally honored Oimelc fasted, refusing to eat meat until Ostara. Sound familiar? Now lent comes from the Old English lecten “spring”. While lent goes back forty days (minus Sunday) from Easter and Easter takes place on the first full moon after the spring equinox.

It had a dual purpose in England. It was the time of the year where it was getting warmer and things were growing, but that food and fuel were usually in short supply.  According to Hutton (cited on the website) it was a time “admirably suited to a period of self-denial and spiritual doubt.”  It made sense that it would become a time of purification with fasting being a form of purification.

Also, if we count back from March 21st those same forty days and seven Sunday’s, we arrive at February 3rd. This is just after Candlemas (Feb 2) and two days after Imbolc (all depending on your tradition’s dates on the subject as well).  Suffice it to say, yet another connection as to what Christianity borrowed from our faith.

Now, interestingly enough Imbolc falls a day before Candlemas, which in the Christian faith is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary….even though the celebration focuses on the presentation of Jesus in the temple….and not Mary. They may have even started as entirely separate festivals (hence the discrepancy between the dates etc.) and both can be traced back in Christian literature all the way back to the fourth century.

It goes on to talk about several other things that are interesting, but not pertinent to our conversation here. Including the fact that Jesus was most likely not born around the winter solstice, but sometime in the spring, citing dates around May.  The author of the website even suggests that this could have purposely been done in this way to compete with popular pagan festivals.  Or that it may have grown out of them. Either way, the point still stands that there were several holidays related to this concept of purification around this time of the year.

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