Candlemas: the Light Returns

It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should be
considered the beginning of Spring. Here in the Heartland, February 2nd
may see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother. Or, if the snows have
gone, you may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush, and
steel-grey skies — the dreariest weather of the year. In short, the
perfect time for a Pagan Festival of Lights. And as for Spring,
although this may seem a tenuous beginning, all the little buds,
flowers and leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs its
course to Beltane. 

 

‘Candlemas’ is the
Christianized name for the holiday, of course. The older Pagan names
were Imbolc and Oimelc. ‘Imbolc’ means, literally, ‘in the belly’ (of
the Mother). For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden from our mundane
sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings. The seed that
was planted in her womb at the solstice is quickening and the new year
grows. ‘Oimelc’ means ‘milk of ewes’, for it is also lambing season.

The holiday is also called ‘Brigit’s Day’, in honor of the
great Irish Goddess Brigit. At her shrine, the ancient Irish
capitol of Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses (no men allowed)
kept a perpetual flame burning in her honor. She was
considered a goddess of fire, patroness of smithcraft, poetry
and healing (especially the healing touch of midwifery). This
tripartite symbolism was occasionally expressed by saying that
Brigit had two sisters, also named Brigit. (Incidentally,
another form of the name Brigit is Bride, and it is thus She
bestows her special patronage on any woman about to be married
or handfasted, the woman being called ‘bride’ in her honor.)

The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great
Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead.
Henceforth, she would be ‘Saint’ Brigit, patron saint of
smithcraft, poetry, and healing. They ‘explained’ this by
telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was ‘really’ an early
Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the
miracles she performed there ‘misled’ the common people into
believing that she was a goddess. For some reason, the Irish
swallowed this. (There is no limit to what the Irish
imagination can convince itself of. For example, they also
came to believe that Brigit was the ‘foster-mother’ of Jesus,
giving no thought to the implausibility of Jesus having spent
his boyhood in Ireland!)

Brigit’s holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred
fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the
fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration.
Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors, and chandlers
celebrated their special holiday. The Roman Church was quick to
confiscate this symbolism as well, using ‘Candlemas’ as the day
to bless all the church candles that would be used for the
coming liturgical year. (Catholics will be reminded that the
following day, St. Blaise’s Day, is remembered for using the
newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners,
keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.)

The Catholic Church, never one to refrain from piling holiday
upon holiday, also called it the Feast of the Purification of
the Blessed Virgin Mary. (It is surprising how many of the old
Pagan holidays were converted to Maryan Feasts.) The symbol of
the Purification may seem a little obscure to modern readers,
but it has to do with the old custom of ‘churching women’. It
was believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving
birth. And since Mary gave birth at the winter solstice, she
wouldn’t be purified until February 2nd. In Pagan symbolism,
this might be re-translated as when the Great Mother once again
becomes the Young Maiden Goddess.

Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore. Even
our American folk-calendar keeps the tradition of ‘Groundhog’s
Day’, a day to predict the coming weather, telling us that if
the Groundhog sees his shadow, there will be ‘six more weeks’
of bad weather (i.e., until the next old holiday, Lady Day).
This custom is ancient. An old British rhyme tells us that ‘If
Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in
the year.’ Actually, all of the cross-quarter days can be used
as ‘inverse’ weather predictors, whereas the quarter-days are
used as ‘direct’ weather predictors.

Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the
Witches’
year, Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on it’s alternate date,
astrologically determined by the sun’s reaching 15-degrees
Aquarius, or Candlemas Old Style. Incidentally, some modern Pagan
groups have recently begun calling the holiday itself ‘Brigit’,
presumably as a shorthand for ‘Brigit’s Day’. This lexical laziness is
lamentable since it confuses a deity-name for the proper name of the
holiday. The same disconcerting trend can be seen in the recent
practice of referring to the autumnal equinox as ‘Mabon’, which is more
properly the name of a Welsh god-form.

Another holiday that gets mixed up in this is
Valentine’s Day. Ozark folklorist Vance Randolf makes this
quite clear by noting that the old-timers used to celebrate
Groundhog’s Day on February 14th. This same displacement is
evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well. Their habit
of celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a
similar post-dated shift in the six-week period that follows
it, puts the Feast of the Purification of Mary on February
14th. It is amazing to think that the same confusion and
lateral displacement of one of the old folk holidays can be
seen from the Russian steppes to the Ozark hills, but such
seems to be the case!

Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic scholars
that the vary name of ‘Valentine’ has Pagan origins. It seems
that it was customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to
pronounce a ‘g’ as a ‘v’. Consequently, the original term may
have been the French ‘galantine’, which yields the English word
‘gallant’. The word originally refers to a dashing young man
known for his ‘affaires d’amour’, a true galaunt. The usual
associations of V(G)alantine’s Day make much more sense in this
light than their vague connection to a legendary ‘St.
Valentine’ can produce. Indeed, the Church has always found it
rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint’s connection to
the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love.

For modern Witches, Candlemas O.S. may then be seen as the
Pagan version of Valentine’s Day, with a de-emphasis of ‘hearts
and flowers’ and an appropriate re-emphasis of Pagan carnal
frivolity. This also re-aligns the holiday with the ancient
Roman Lupercalia, a fertility festival held at this time, in
which the priests of Pan ran through the streets of Rome
whacking young women with goatskin thongs to make them
fertile. The women seemed to enjoy the attention and often
stripped in order to afford better targets.

One of the nicest folk-customs still practiced in many
countries, and especially by Witches in the British Isles and
parts of the U.S., is to place a lighted candle in each and
every window of the house (or at least the windows that faced the street), beginning at sundown on Candlemas
Eve (February 1st), allowing them to continue burning until
sunrise. Make sure that such candles are well seated against
tipping and guarded from nearby curtains, etc. What a cheery
sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary night to see house
after house with candle-lit windows! And, of course, if you
are your Coven’s chandler, or if you just happen to like making
candles, Candlemas Day is the day for doing it. Some Covens
hold candle-making parties and try to make and bless all the
candles they’ll be using for the whole year on this day.

Other customs of the holiday include weaving ‘Brigit’s crosses’
from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection,
performing rites of spiritual cleansing and purification,
making ‘Brigit’s beds’ to ensure fertility of mind and spirit
(and body, if desired), and making Crowns of Light (i.e. of
candles) for the High Priestess to wear for the Candlemas
Circle, similar to those worn on St. Lucy’s Day in Scandinavian
countries. All in all, this Pagan Festival of Lights, sacred
to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and
poetic of the year.



This document copyright 1986, 1998 – Mike Nichols

This and all related documents can be re-published only as long as no
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Revised: Saturday, May 23, 1998 c.e.
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