February 1, 2010
Imbolc, or St. Brigid's Day – Ireland, Montserrat, Celtic/Gaelic cultures
Imbolc is one of the four most important festivals of the Celtic year, and so is still celebrated by many Irish and others from Gaelic cultures.
The Christian version of the festival is called St. Brigid's Day. St. Brigid is Ireland's secondary saint (after Saint Patrick); she is associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid, who was responsible for poetry, healing, and smithcraft.
Under either name, the festival is celebrated on various dates, according to different calendars, and is sometimes tied to specific agricultural or local signs of spring such as the first dandelions to push up through the snow, or the birth of lambs. The most common date of celebration is the first of February.
There are also many different sorts of rituals used to welcome the signs of spring. One important theme is fire, and people light candles (some Christians call the festival Candlemas), shoot off fireworks, have torchlight processions, or create bonfires. Above is a hare-shaped fire for Imbolc. Whatever its form, fire represents the returning of the sun and warmth over the coming months.
Another common theme is weather prediction. If the day of Imbolc is clear and sunny, it is said that winter will continue quite a while longer, but if the day is cloudy and gray, winter is presumed to be almost over. Also, people look for snakes or badgers to come out from their winter dens—if the creatures emerge, winter is almost over. These traditions may have inspired North America's Groundhog Day (which is tomorrow!).
A colorful folk tradition involves St. Brigid's Eve (January 31) as well as St. Brigid's Day. The girls of the village make a corn dolly to represent St. Brigid, and decorate it with shells and ribbons.
Many of us might picture a corn dolly being a human-shaped corn husk doll, but a corn dolly refers to a type of straw work that isn't necessarily corn (corn means “grain” in this usage) and isn't necessarily human-shaped (many look like wreaths, tiny sheaths, or Brigid's crosses, pictured at right).
The village girls also make a bed for the dolly to lie on, and they stay up all night and host a late visit by all the young men of the community. The next day, the girls carry the corn dolly through the village, from house to house. Adult women welcome the procession with gifts of coins or snacks.
Make candles. There are easy instructions to be found on the internet, such as these.
Make a braided straw decoration, similar to St. Brigid's corn dollies, using straw or raffia from a craft store. Tape down three pieces of raffia, and braid them. Make several braids to tie together with other pieces of raffia or to braid together into one thick plait.
Here are some pictures of corn dollies. Maddy from Wales sells beautiful handmade corn dollies! Enjoy taking a peek!
Cook special St. Brigid's Day foods. Recipes for a potato/cabbage dish, potato “cakes,” Brigid's Bread, and more can be found here. Even more Irish food recipes are here.
Where is Montserrat? And why do people there celebrate St. Brigid's Day?
Although Christopher Columbus “discovered” this Caribbean island on his second voyage for Spain in 1493 (much to the surprise of the Arawak and Carib Indians who lived there!), England and then Great Britain controlled it since 1632. A group of Irish people suffering from anti-Catholic violence and indentured servitude settled the island in that year, and soon began to import African slaves.
Like other nearby islands, Montserrat relied for years on sugar and cotton plantations and manufacture of rum. Eventually slavery was outlawed and sugar prices fell. However, rather than watching the island go down to grinding poverty, a philanthropist named Joseph Sturge bought failed sugar plantations, planted limes, and sold small lime farms to the people of Montserrat.
More than a century later, another man helped bring some prosperity to Montserrat: the Beatles' producer George Martin opened a recording studio and attracted top musical talent to the island. Of course, there was tourist trade by then as well.
However, Montserrat was devastated in the 1980s and 90s by a double blow—the devastating power of Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, and the even more shocking 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano, which had been dormant all throughout recorded history. This volcano thankfully did not "wake up" with a massive eruption, but it still managed to make most of the island uninhabitable (at least for many years) and destroyed the capital city, Plymouth, pictured at right. Plymouth was buried under 39 feet (12 meters) of mud. By 1997, continued eruptions had killed 19 people and burned much of what had not yet been covered in ash.
Today much of the island is green; a new airport, docking facility, and capital city are being built in the north, out of the volcano's reach; and some of the people who had left the island during its double-decades of double-destruction have now returned.
According to Wikipedia, a lot of the people who live on the island are descendants of Irish, of Africans, and of mixed Irish and African. Aside from Ireland, Montserrat is the only place in the world that celebrates Saint Patrick's Day as a full public holiday.