Today, the 2nd of February, is Candlemas in the Christian calendar and Imbolc in the pagan / pre-Christian calendar. In America, it’s also Groundhog’s Day. Yesterday, February 1st, was St. Brigid’s Day in Celtic Christian countries. Some also celebrate Imbolc on the 1st. You might not think there’s much connection between all these nicknames for two days at the start of February, but in fact there is.
As with Samhain, the early Christian church used existing festivals and superimposed Christian feast days on them. Before the arrival of Christianity in the Celtic countries, Imbolc was one of the important quarter-festivals. It marked the beginning of the return of the light and fertility. The name is said to be associated with pregnant ewes, and/or ewes’ milk. Carin’s blog includes a “Wheel of the Year” illustrating the pagan festivals, if you’re interested to see Imbolc in context (it’s on the right hand side, some way down).
In Celtic countries, Imbolc became St. Brigid’s Day. I’ve read that St. Brigid was a re-invention of a pagan goddess, and also that she was St. Brigid of Kildare, a 5th-century Irish holy woman. Either way, St. Brigid’s day in Ireland is a day of blessing the hearth and the home. Blessings are said on the house, and St. Brigid’s crosses are made from rushes. These are blessed and hung in the kitchen. Diary of a Country Wife has posted a good entry on St. Brigid’s Day. In answer to your question, Country Wife: I remember Michael’s Irish auntie always had a St. Brigid’s cross on her kitchen wall – renewed at the beginning of each February.
Traditionally, this was also a time to try to determine how much longer the winter would last, and one method of divination was to see whether animals emerged from their holes at this time. Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica recorded this Gaelic poem:
|‘Moch maduinn Bhride,
Thig an nimhir as an toll,
Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir,
Cha bhoin an nimhir rium.’
|Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.
The American tradition of Groundhog’s Day is a continuation of this ancient ritual: if the Groundhog can see his shadow, there will be 40 more days of winter.
Lastly, the Christian festival of Candlemas extends the idea of blessing the hearth to specifically blessing the candles that will be used in the church throughout the year. The wonderful Festivals Family and Food (Diana Carey and Judy Large, Hawthorn Press, 1982) gives this rhyme linking Candlemas with foretelling the weather:
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will take another flight.
If Candlemas Day be cloud and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.”
So now you have any number of ways to mark this moment in the year: light some candles, bless your home, make a St. Brigid’s cross,or keep a lookout for emerging animals!