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.
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.
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.
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