Last week we looked at the Hindu festival of early spring. This week we welcome the early spring with a few British Isles holidays in honor of new growth: Imbolc and Candlemas. Celebrated on February 1 and 2, they fall halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and can be considered the beginning of spring.
Imbolc is the Celtic name for the holiday celebrated on February 1. The name is alternately derived from words that refer to washing and pregnant bellies and ewe’s milk, because this is the time when lambs are born out in the fields and the earth is prepared for sowing, a time to ask for protection for young animals and tender crops.
February 1 is also the feast day of St. Brigid, who began her life as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian saint. The goddess, Brigid or Bride, was a fire and fertility goddess with a temple at Kildare where an eternal flame burned, tended by vestal virgins. The saint, Brigid, was born in the fifth century and established the first monastery in Ireland at (where else?) Kildare. Many of the saint’s legends resonate with the qualities and aspects of the goddess. St. Brigid is often associated with light and fire, she multiplies butter and milk, she brings people sheep and cattle, and she can control the weather. To celebrate St. Brigid’s day, people leave a loaf of bread on the windowsill for the saint and an ear of corn for her white cow. Wheat weavings called “Brigid’s crosses” serve as charms to protect homes from fire and lightning.
February 2 is known as Candlemas in the Christian church, thanks to a passage from Luke 2:21 in which the baby Jesus is heralded as “a light for revelation” when Mary goes to the temple for the rite of purification required for women 40 days after giving birth to a baby boy. The spark of the candle burning in the darkness becomes the symbol of new life. Candles are brought to church to be blessed on this day and taken home to serve as protection from disasters. In Hungary, according to Dorothy Spicer in The Book of Festivals, February 2 is called “Blessing of the Candle of the Happy Woman.” In Poland, it is called “Mother of God Who Saves Us from Thunder.”
In North America we celebrate February 2 by observing a groundhog who predicts the weather for the upcoming 40 days by rousing from hibernation to check out the sunshine. If he sees his shadow (meaning it’s a sunny day), he goes back inside and winter continues. If he stays out, then spring will come early.
If you are lucky at Candlemas you can see the stirrings of spring. Here in Seattle, the witch hazel and the boxwood are blooming, perfuming the air with sweet scents. Snowdrops (the flower of St. Brigid) are opening their snowy white bells. In colder climates, you might look for signs of a thaw or just treasure the extra few minutes of light each day.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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