An old Scottish poem contains these lines:
A farmer should, on Candlemas day,
Have half his corn and half his hay.
In Europe the word corn refers to small grains like wheat and barley, not the New World kind that we eat on the cob. But the concept is the same. Candlemas day, or Imbolc, marked the midpoint between the beginning and end of winter, and a good farmer would still have plenty of fodder remaining for his livestock. Since Seven Trees’ sole source of heat is a trusty woodstove, we also include firewood in that list of necessities. A cold June can wreak havoc in the woodshed.
Imbolc is celebrated in modern times on February 1st. In our agrarian ancestors’ time it was usually associated with the imminent birth of the spring lambs (Imbolc has been translated from the gaelic i mbolg as meaning ‘in the belly’, and a medieval glossary has the term oimelc “ewe’s milk”) and celebrated in a wider window of time from late January to early February.
In Ireland, this day was holy to Brigid (also known as Bridget or Bride), an ancient deity who embodied returning light and fertility after the dark quiet of winter. When the Christians arrived, they weren’t able to completely eradicate the beliefs and traditions of the original people, but absorbed and mutated them over the years. Brigid became St. Brigid, and the celebration of the return of light became Candlemas.
An important element of Brigid’s worship are holy wells. These natural conduits between our world and the mysterious otherworld represent rebirth and cleansing. For untold centuries, people have been drawn to these places in Celtic lands, to wish and pray and leave offerings. Many wells have clootie trees near by – sacred trees in whose branches are tied bits of cloth (clooties) that have been dipped in the well. As the scrap of cloth disingtegrates, the prayers & wishes are released into the winds.
Imbolc also means paying respects to our ancestors by researching and practicing some of the old traditions. One we started last year, and will be continuing, is making Brigid’s crosses from last harvest’s straw. They are hung over doorways for good luck, and even in barns and critter housing to keep livestock healthy and productive. In Ireland in the 1800’s it was said you could tell how long a family had lived in their home by how many Brigid’s crosses were tucked into the thatch over the front door.
The 4-armed crosses were meant for the humans’ house –
And the 3-armed ones for the barn –
Learn how to make your own Brigid’s cross here, and see sketches of historical variations here. We make ours from wheat stalks that we save from the summer harvest. They get soaked overnight to make them pliable. Rushes are also used, but it’s hard to find a similar kind in our area. I think cattail leaves might work too though.
Imbolc is also a good time to take what you learned from the previous season and bring it into the spring. We are looking over our notes and our planting areas and deciding what to plant where, and when. The weather isn’t quite right to get out there and work, but signs of the earth’s rebirth after the long winter are more abundant every day.