The promise of light and life – Imbolc, Candlemas and St Bridget

Today, the first day of February, is the festival of Imbolc (the ‘b’ is usually silent).  A pre-Christian festival celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring, it marks the point in the year when, although some of the worst weather might still be to come, nevertheless the first signs of hope and life are emerging.  Days are noticeably longer, trees are budding and the catkins are out (though as a hay fever sufferer with a particular sensitivity to tree pollen, I’m less thrilled about this last development).  The plump, green shoots of flowering  bulbs have nosed their way out of the cold earth, and the first of them – aconites, snowdrops, crocuses, even the occasional daffodil – are blooming.  Their splashes of yellow, white and purple are the first colour after the monochrome months of winter.

The beginning of February has been a popular time for festivals.  In the Christian era in Ireland, the date became associated with St Bridget (Brigid, Bride, Brighde, etc), second only to St Patrick as the country’s principal saint.  She in turn was conflated with the great pagan goddess of the same name.  St Bridget was invoked by metalworkers, in healing, and in warfare, as well as in connection with fire and thunderstorms.  By the 18th century it was believed that Bridget would visit the homes of the virtuous on the night before her feast, and bless the inhabitants.  In some places, offerings of food – cakes or bread – would be left on window sills for her, but more usually a cross would be woven out of rushes or straw, and hung near a door or window to welcome her.  This custom has been widely adopted well beyond Ireland, and is popular in the neo-pagan community as a way of marking Imbolc.  There are even tutorials on YouTube to teach you how to make a St Bridget’s cross.  I made mine yesterday, although as I didn’t have any rushes or straw to hand I raided the garden and used the dried stems of a large ornamental grass instead.  Traditionally, the crosses are left up all year, the old cross being burned when the new one is made.

Mono photograph of a St Bridget's Cross.

The second day of February is the Christian festival of Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  In the Gospel of Luke, the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents, for his mother to make the traditional Jewish offering to purify herself.  Under Jewish law, this happened 40 days after childbirth, so once the Church had fixed the birth of Jesus to 25 December, this festival took place on 2 February.  Little is known about how it was celebrated in the early Church, but by the end of the seventh century it had reached Britain, and a couple of decades later the Venerable Bede described rituals including candlelit processions.   Maybe the candles harked back to the words of Simeon, the old man at the Temple, who recognised in the baby Jesus as the Messiah who would be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’?

As well as giving their name to the festival, candles were a major part of the customs that marked it, with candles being blessed and used in procession.  They were then either burned in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, or taken home to be lit to protect the household against illness or storms.  The Reformation saw the end of these customs, the blessing of candles being seen as superstitious and the making of magical objects, and the customs of Candlemas lay dormant until the nineteenth century, with the revival of interest in the pre-Reformation Church and medievalism.

Candlemas is traditionally the very end of the season of Christmas, and in some places the evergreen decorations are not taken down on Twelfth Night but kept up until Candlemas – an echo, perhaps, of the Imbolc celebration of the end of winter.  Those shy harbingers of spring, snowdrops, are also known as Candlemas Bells, because they flower at this time.

Photo of hand cupping a snowdrop.

February festivals have a long and varied history – to the Romans, February was a month of rituals of cleansing and purification, in preparation for the new life of spring.  Those of us who still practice ‘spring cleaning’ are following in a very long tradition!  Next time you wash your curtains, go down to the recycling centre or take your unwanted clothes to the charity/thrift shop, you can remind yourself that you are taking part in a spring ritual which has being going on for over two thousand years.  Like the Romans, we can start to think beyond nesting, hibernating, snuggling down in our homes and look ahead to longer days, open windows, warm sunshine.

This is the point in the year when we can feel a shift from passive winter to active spring.  No longer are we hunkered down, waiting for the dark and cold to pass – now we are looking forward to new life, new growth, warmth and light.  Next stop, spring flowers and baby birds everywhere!  There may still be snow and storms and dark days to come, but psychologically the worst of winter is behind us.  This is a time of promise.  Spring is coming.

If you would like to know more about the festivals of the year, their origins and traditions, I highly recommend the following books. The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton provides an academic but very readable introduction, while Glennie Kindred’s Sacred Earth Celebrations is the best guide I have found to the festivals of the Wheel of the Year as celebrated by the pagan community today.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Walking in a Winter Wonderland – a walk down Glastonbury high street

In a normal year, the centre of Glastonbury would be bustling at this time of year, with shoppers visiting the many emporia of alternative retail culture in the town.  This year, it has been very different – because of social distancing rules, there has been no Frost Fayre, and far fewer visitors than usual for the Winter Solstice.  Nevertheless, the shopkeepers have done a wonderful job of decorating their windows, in defiantly bright contrast to a season which has seemed even darker than usual this year.  I would like to share with you a walk, in pictures, down the High Street to the Market Place and along Magdalene Street, after dark.  For me, the lit windows are like magic lanterns or stained glass, glowing with light and colour, with images and symbols which bring out different aspects of the seasonal festivals.

Let’s start on the High Street.  This is one of my favourite shops, with its Art Deco window panels and kaleidoscopic lanterns.  The big lump in the middle of the display is myrrh – one of the three gifts traditionally brought to the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, by the wise men who came from the east.  There is something of the souk about this shop, and the owner always keeps an incense burner alight outside the door, sending exotic fragrances out into the Somerset town.

Just across the road, I like the whimsy of a gift shop wrapped up like a present, picking up on the tradition of exchanging gifts which has been part of midwinter celebrations for millennia.  I don’t envy them fixing those lights up on the roof!  I know it’s a shop which sells lovely things, and it looks very inviting, but this evening I’m photographing, not shopping, so I keep walking.

This shop has been recently refurbished, and the gilding of the lettering catches the light (gold, frankincense, myrrh).  This shop sells mostly Indian items, and its window display is full of little lights, hinting at Diwali.  The top floor, which I must admit I have never noticed in daylight, has a rainbow of lanterns suspended from the ceiling.  I think they go very well with the municipal Christmas tree on the front of the shop.

The Green Man is a significant folkloric and pagan symbol, and at this season of evergreens he is everywhere in Glastonbury.  This is a particularly fine example, framed by greenery and bringing a touch of the wildwood to the high street.

More Green Men here too, who have been joined by Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god.  The interweaving of traditions and beliefs is a major feature of Glastonbury, and is reflected in the range of merchandise which shops offer to modern-day pilgrims and visitors.  It is said that over 70 religions and beliefs are represented in the town, making Glastonbury perhaps one of the most spiritually diverse places on earth.

But amid all the paraphernalia of spirituality, people’s physical needs are catered for too, and the baker’s shop has a cornucopia of seasonal goodies in the window.  The mince pies look delicious, and I don’t even like mince pies!  Let’s hope the Scandi-style elves in the display don’t eat them all…

Across the road, one of Glastonbury’s best-known shops covers all the bases for seasonal gift-buying – a witches’ calendar for 2021, a cushion showing moon phases, a Green Man apron, magic spell kits and oracle cards, and a book on the Winter Solstice.  There is a tree, with snow-filled baubles, and a wreath with greenery and berries, and also the Tree of Life.

The next window seems quite conventional, for Glastonbury – a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.  But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not exactly the Santa of popular culture – this chap is nearer to the old images of Father Christmas, looking rather as if he’s just come walking out of the forest with an armful of kindling for the Yule fire.

A couple of doors down, we have more trees and another Father Christmas – but again, he isn’t the scarlet-clad figure with the sleigh and the ho-ho-ho.  This one is dressed in brown, smiling benevolently amid frosty-white trees, lit with cool whites and blues and populated with cuddly woodland animals.  It looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and I’d love to read the whole story.

By way of contrast, the next window has nothing conventional about it at all – there may be a wreath of leaves, but they frame a seated figure of the Buddha, reflected to infinity in a circular mirror, and flanked by a pair of angles who look like they were crafted by Jacob Epstein.  Cascades of light and washes of colour create an ephemeral magic.

We have reached the bottom of the high street, and turn left into the Market Place.  Here, there’s a clothes line of colourful stockings, strung above a vast selection of crystals.  A decorated Christmas tree sits beside geodes and ammonites, which are echoed in the signage above the shop window.

In the toy shop next door, the stunning wooden fairy tale castle which is a permanent fixture has been joined for the season by a couple of Nutcracker figures and a very cute reindeer in a winter wonderland that is all sparkle and ice.  The nod to continental Christmas customs is continued in the Nordic bunting across the window.

And so, finally, we come to Magdalene Street, and the last of the lit shops.  In a building which is one of only three in Glastonbury to survive from the 15th century, a handsome reindeer follows a trail of shining stars, with the inky-black winter sky above.

Whichever of the midwinter festivals you celebrate, may I send you – despite the particular challenges of this year – peace, love and happiness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Midwinter festivals of light – why we need them more than ever this year

A couple of nights ago a lantern appeared in the window of a house round the corner, with banners wishing passers-by a ‘Happy Hanukkah.’  In my street, each evening sees more Christmas lights wrapped around shrubs or strung up in windows.  A few weeks ago, millions of people celebrated Diwali, the festival of light.  Very soon, we in the northern hemisphere will be rejoicing that the shortest day has come and that, with the Winter Solstice, the world is moving back towards the longer, lighter days.

Until recently, I wasn’t an enthusiast for festive lights – a pyrophobe since childhood, the risks of fire associated with strings of electric lights always put me off having them on the tree.  But these days, lights are safer and the bulbs cooler, and there are even battery-powered ones available which don’t require power cables snaking across the room to trip up the unwary, and my partner has always liked lights, so for the last few years I have joined in quite happily, if passively.  This year, though, has been different.

Not only have we used our ‘old’ lights but we have been out and bought three sets of new ones.  We have lights in the Christmas tree.  We have lights in the front window, and we make sure they are switched on as soon as dusk falls to cheer passers-by.  There are five metres of lights draped around the fireplace.  A glass vase has been filled with tiny LED lights.  There’s a candle in the festive wreath on the coffee table.  There’s a candle on the dinner table.   There is sparkly tinsel everywhere to reflect the lights.  The only reason that there are not more lights is that we have run out of sockets to plug them into!  This year, it feels particularly important to participate in lighting the dark evenings of the last weeks of the year.  Each evening, the switching on of the lights creates a glow of positivity and cosiness in our home, whatever is going on in the world outside.

I find it interesting that, over thousands of years, religions and cultures across the world have felt the need to develop customs and festivals associated with light in the darkest time of the year.  In Judaism, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the story of how one day’s supply of blessed oil miraculously lasted for eight days, so that the menorah (branched candlestick) could be kept lit until new oil could be prepared.  Traditionally, a nine-branched menorah is lit during the festival (one light for each of the eight days of the miracle – the ninth branch holds the light from which the others are lit).  Across the world, Jewish households place the menorah in windows which face the street, and it is a time of feasting.

 Diwali is also known as the Festival of Light.  Its name derives from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning ‘row of lights’ and is celebrated as a religious festival by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.  It represents the triumph of light over darkness (and by extension the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance).  Homes, temples and businesses are decorated with lights inside and out, and the skies are lit by fireworks.  And there is, of course, feasting.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians call the Light of the World.  Although the date of his birth is unknown, celebrating it around the time of the pagan midwinter festival has been the custom in the northern hemisphere for many hundreds of years, and a wealth of imagery in art, carols and literature places the Nativity in snowy scenes, with the Star of Bethlehem clearly visible over the stable in a dark, frosty sky.  Candles figured largely, with real candles shown on the first Victorian Christmas trees when the custom was imported from Germany (allegedly introduced by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert).  As you can imagine, the idea of lighted candles amongst the resinous branches of fir trees is the stuff of nightmares for me!  Christianity borrowed many of the midwinter customs of the peoples it converted, including – perhaps inevitably – feasting.

Image of a string of electric lights

Here in Glastonbury, there are probably as many people preparing to celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Yule, as there are those who celebrate the Christian Christmas.  Most of us will have a fusion of customs – lights will mark the ‘Light of all people’ who came into the world at Christmas, or the triumph of the sun as it defeats the darkness of the longest night.  We sing the carols “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” and “The Holly and the Ivy” and decorate our homes with the same evergreen branches which have been a staple of midwinter celebrations for millennia, symbolising the continuity of life even in the dark depths of winter.  Normally, of course, there would be feasting – roast birds, Christmas pudding and mince pies all part of a rich heritage of midwinter jollification going back to before records began – but in this year of Covid-related restrictions there will probably be rather less feasting than usual.  Certainly the family and community feasting of Diwali and Hanukkah have already had to be more subdued this year.

But in a year that feels dark, sad and fearful for many, it feels like an act of defiance to light the candles and switch on the lights.  Our community celebrations may be muted, and our feasting limited to our own households, but we can still shine our lights into the darkness and say that we are still here, we are still celebrating, and that we know that light will overcome the darkness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com