Today being February 2nd, we all know that it is Groundhog’s Day, when the groundhog will predict when the end of winter will occur. As accurate as any weatherman, we will learn if spring will come early, or if winter will continue for another 6 weeks. All predicted by a shadow.
What we might not realize, however, is that American Groundhog’s Day has Irish origins. Imbolc began as an Irish Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. Imbolc was celebrated on February 1st, the day that is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The holiday was a celebration of the spring that was soon to be, as well as longer days ahead. The celebrations often involved fires and special foods including a pancake known as bannocks.
Fire was an important part of the celebration, and the Irish believed that Imbolc was when a mythical old woman named Cailleach gathered her firewood for the rest of winter. The legend was that if she wished to make winter last longer, she would ensure that the day was bright and sunny so she could gather a lot of firewood, and maintain the fire for a longer time to keep her warm from the cold winter that was to continue. A dark and cloudy day meant that Cailleach would sleep and not be able to gather any more wood. Since the fire would not be able to burn for long without additional wood, it meant that the warm days of spring were almost here.
Brigid was born in Ireland around 453 AD. She was an Irish Catholic nun, and when she died in 524, she was honored as one of the patron saints of Ireland, and Imbolc was celebrated as her feast day. The Irish had a special feast, which started on the eve before, January 31, to mark the end of winter.
In some of the traditions that still continue today, clothes and strips of cloth were left outside for Brigid to bless. Ashes from the fire would be raked smooth, and in the morning, they would look for any disturbance of the ashes as a sign that Brigid had visited. The next day they were brought inside and believed to have the power of healing and protection. Additionally, the girls and young unmarried women of the household or village create a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brideog, adorning it with ribbons and shells or stones. They make a bed for the Brideog to lie in. On St. Brigid’s Eve (Jan 31), the girls and young women gather together in one house to stay up all night with the Brideog, and are later visited by all the young men of the community who must ask permission to enter the home. They stayed and joined the girls in dancing to dawn.
They also made Brigid’s Cross, which was woven thick grass with a square in the middle and four arms extending from each corner. These crosses were placed throughout Irish homes to welcome Brigid and protect buildings from fire. They were often left until the following year’s celebration.
So as the groundhog tells us our fate today about the length of winter ahead, remember that the tradition really has its origins in Ireland with St. Brigid.