2 FEBRUARY – 19 MARCH
For our ancestors, February was a harsh and bitter time. In old Scotland, the month fell in the middle of the period known as Faoilleach, the Wolf-month; it was also known as a’ marbh mhiòs, the Dead-month. Yet signs of new life were also appearing: lambs were born and soft rain brought new grass, ravens began nest-building and larks were said to sing with a clearer voice. In Ireland, the land was prepared to receive the new seed with spade and plough; calves were born and fishermen looked eagerly for the end of winter storms and rough seas to launch their boats again. Herd animals had either given birth to the first offspring of the year or were swelling with new milk; soon there would be milk for people to drink at the end of a long hard winter.
The Gaelic word oimelc means “ewes milk” while the Old Irish i mbolg means “in the belly” – all referring to February as a time of pregnant and lactating sheep. Hence, this period has been variously named Imbolc, Disting (Teutonic, Feb 14th), St. Bridget’s Day (Christian), Candlelaria (Mexican), the Snowdrop Festival and the Festival of Lights. A cold, dark month, February was when (candle)light was needed as people yearned for sunshine. These events were later Christianised with the introduction of St Brigid and Candlemas, a Christian ritual that continued to acknowledge the returning of the light.
Candlemas marks the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. It was a festival of the hearth and home, a celebration of lengthening days, candle-lighting, hearth fires and special foods (butter, milk, and bannocks). It was also the time of Blessing of the Seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. In some areas, this was the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough was dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money, and sometimes whisky (the “water of life”) was poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread were left by the plough and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It was taboo to cut or pick plants during this time.
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).
– Robert Herrick, Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve
Candlemas is traditionally a time of divination, watching for omens, weather prognostication and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens: “If February give much snow / A fine summer it doth foreshow”. In Gaelic tradition on this day, the hag gathered her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend had it that if she intended to make the winter last a good while longer, she would make sure the weather was bright and sunny, so she could gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people were generally relieved to undergo a day of foul weather, as it meant the Cailleach was asleep, and winter was almost over. “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear / There’ll be two winters in the year”.
In many places around this time, the first snow-covered crocuses and snowdrops had also begun to spring forth from the frozen earth. The Latin name for the snowdrop is Galanthus, which means “milk flower”; they were also nicknamed Candlemas bells, Purification flowers, or – with a nod to St. Brigid, perhaps – “Fair Maid of February”.
The Snowdrop, in purest white array,
First rears her head on Candlemas day.
FIRE AND PURIFICATION
In days past, candles were vitally important when there were no electric lights, and around this time of year, supplies would start dwindling. People would gather up all their candle stubs, melt them down and made a new batch of candles. Some people also believed they gave protection against plague and illness and famine. Candlemas was celebrated with a festival of lights. In the dark and gloomy days of February, the shadowy recesses of medieval churches twinkled brightly as each member of the congregation carried a lighted candle in procession around the church, to be blessed by the priest. Afterwards, the candles were brought home to be used to keep away storms, demons and other evils. The lighting of candles and fires on Candlemas represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
ST BRIGID’S DAY
Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bríde, Brigit, Brìd) is the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames and dairy cows. When she became abbess of Kildare, she miraculously increased the milk and butter yield of the abbey cows; some accounts say that her cows produced a whole lake of milk three times a day, and one churning filled hundreds of baskets with butter. She was nicknamed “Milkmaid Bride”, or “Golden-haired Bride of the kine”, hence medieval artworks often depict her holding a cow or carrying a pair of milk-pails.
The folk tradition of Brigid’s Bed saw unmarried maidens make Straw Brideo’gas (corn dollies) from oat or wheat straw, adorned with shells, crystals and ribbons, placed in baskets with snowdrops, primroses and other early spring flowers. An especially bright shell (symbol of emerging life) or crystal was placed over its heart and called the “guiding star of Bride”, after the star over the stable in Bethlehem that led Bride to the Christ child. These were carried from door to door by the maidens, all dressed in white and wearing their hair down, personifying the spirit of purity and youth. Gifts (coins, flowers, cheese, butter and bannocks) were bestowed upon them by married housewives in each household. Afterwards at the traditional feast, the older women made special acorn wands for the dollies to hold, and in the morning the ashes in the hearth are examined to see if the magic wands left marks as a good omen. Brighid’s Crosses were made (pictured), hearth fires were put out and re-lit, and lit candles were placed in each room of the house to honour the rebirth of the Sun.
Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. – Alexander Carmichael
The older women of the town also conducted a ceremony on the Eve of Bride. They too made an effigy of Bride out of oats and decorated her in a basket; folklorist Alexander Carmichael describes what happened next: “…one woman goes to the door of the house, and standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, calls softly into the darkness, ‘Bride’s bed is ready’. To this a ready woman behind replies, ‘Let Bride come in. Bride is welcome’. The woman at the door again addresses Bride, ‘Bride, Bride, come thou in, thy bed is made. Preserve the house for the Trinity’. The women then place the ikon of Bride with great ceremony into the bed they have so carefully prepared for it. In her hand they placed a small straight white wand, generally of birch, the tree of spring, or other sacred wood: straight to signify justice, white for purity and peace. Then, before retiring for the night they smoothed the ashes of the hearth. Their dearest wish was that she visit them in the night, and in the morning they eagerly examined the ashes for traces of her presence: if they discerned the marks of her wand, they knew they were favoured; if the footprint of Bride was discovered in the ashes then they were overjoyed, and knew to expect increase in family, flock and field in the coming year. If there were no signs at all, they were downcast, believing she must be offended. To remedy this, they buried a cock as an offering at a place where three streams met—a three-fold confluence of sacred power—and burned incense on the fire the next evening.”
Brighid’s girdle is my girdle
The girdle with the four crosses
And go out three times.
May whoever goes through my girdle
Be seven times better a year from now.
The ‘circle-cross’ referred to here was traditionally woven from wheat stalks or triple-braided straw rope, thus marrying the sacred numbers of four and three. Another ritual object involving these numbers sounds as if it is from a much earlier time. Known as the Crios Bríde (Saint Brigid’s Girdle) it was made from braided straw rope and carried in procession with the effigy of Bride throughout the town. At each house, the occupants were expected to pass through it, to obtain Bride’s protection and good health for the coming year. As they did this, the bearers of the cross chanted the verse above. Circle-crosses were exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year. You can hang a woven cross over your door, above the bed or by the hearth at Imbolc for protection and as a sign that you give thanks for the quickening of the year. It should be left in place until the following year. The correct time to collect and plait the rushes is St. Bride’s Eve, or January 31.
2 cups uncooked, old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
2-1/2-cups sifted bread flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil spray
A day ahead, combine the oats and buttermilk in a small bowl. Blend thoroughly, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the oat mixture from the refrigerator. Combine the bread flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Slowly add the oat mixture and stir with a wooden spoon 20 to 30 times, or until you have a smooth dough. Grease a baking sheet with the oil spray. Turn the dough onto the baking sheet, and use your hands to form a round, cake-shaped loaf about 1-inch thick. Use a sharp knife or pizza cutter to cut the dough into 4 quarters (“farls”). Move the quarters apart slightly, but keep them in the original round shape. Bake until the cakes are light golden brown and firm to the touch, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool slightly on a rack, and serve with butter and jam or preserves. Makes 1 quartered loaf (4 farls), serving 4-8.
Pancake Day is the last day before the period which Christians call Lent. This was the last time luxury foods could be used. All over England different Shrove Tuesday meals were made: broth (Scotland), doughnuts (Hertfordshire), frying pan pudding (Lincolnshire), pea soup (Cornwall), with the most popular being pancakes. A church bell, called the ‘Shriving Bell’, rang to signal the start of the holiday and to call people to church to confess their sins. The church bell was rung at eleven or twelve o’clock in the morning, as a signal to housewives to start frying the traditional pancakes.
ST VALENTINE’S DAY
February has long been a time associated with fertility and love. In ancient times, the Romans held a fertility festival, Lupercalia, on February 15. Around 496, Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day, declaring February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day (there were three early Christian saints all called Valentine). In 1381, Chaucer composed a poem in honor of the engagement between England’s Rochard II and Anne of Bohemia, linking “The Parliament of Fowls” (the royal engagement) with the mating season of birds and St. Valentine’s Day: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day / When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate”. Valentine greetings were popular in the Middle Ages, though written Valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known Valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.
The arrival of hawthorn and apple blossoms across the fields and dales was also a beautiful sight to our ancestors, suggesting imagery of love and weddings. Cherry blossom trees also boast a wonderful sweet scent when burned on log fires; people also crushed their bark and add it to incense. In Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, the resin gum was stirred into wine and was good for “a cold, cough and hoarseness of the throat; mendeth colour in the face, sharpeneth the eye-sight and provoket appetite”.
The Cherry Tree
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
– A E Houseman (1896)
Excerpt from Tales of Wych Elm Gate
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Sunbeams lit up the snowy woods and dales, and as Bess trudged back from the little red hencote, her apron filled with a few warm speckled eggs, she yelped in delight. Snowdrops were poking through the ice under the privet hedge like magical fairy bells. Bess stooped and picked them to show Mother.
“‘The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day’,” nodded Mary when she saw Bess’s posy, and arranged the snowdrops in a glass jar. She placed it in the kitchen window, where a loaf of bread already lay in honour of Saint Brigid.
“It’s the end of the Christmas season,” said Bess nostalgically. She went around the farmhouse, opening shutters to let the wan sunlight trickle in, taking down the last of the dried-out holly garlands and throwing them into the kitchen fire. She was always sad when yuletide was over, but also bursting with happiness that soon the days would be warm and the woods filled with wildflowers once more.
“Finish your breakfast quickly, Polly and Bess,” said Mother. “We must get busy candle-making.”
Father wound his scarf around his neck and put on his warmest woollen cap, and Bess wrapped herself in Mother’s old coat, and together they slushed through the muddy snow down to the orchard slope where the beehives were. The little wooden Langstroth boxes with their smart thatched roofs, lined against the tumbledown stone wall, were almost silent. Inside, the bees were clustered together quietly for warmth. Father had fed them a good handful of royal icing in the autumn, for them to feast on throughout the winter months, and reduced the size of the hive entrance to keep out the chill breezes. Now he and Bess scraped away the frost from the entrance and shook out the many poor, dead bees. Working quickly so the remaining bees didn’t get cold, Father removed some old wooden frames covered in disused honeycomb.
Back at the farmhouse, Mary was heating knives on the hearthstone, and now she and Mother used them to quickly cut the wax caps from the comb. They melted away easily and were placed in a pan. Next, they placed pieces of uncapped comb in the centre of some cheesecloth and squeezed it tightly over an earthenware jar. Honey poured slowly through the cloth until there was no more, and the crushed comb was discarded.
“Now,” said Mother to Bess, “Run through the house and collect all the candle stubs you can find.”
Bess rattled about from room to room, picking old pieces of candle out of the candelabra and the candlesticks, finding stumps in drawers and scraping out the bottom of an old candle lantern. All of these would be melted down and made into sweet-smelling new candles again.
Outside in the dirty snow, where the hog had been slaughtered last year, Will had kindled a lovely crackling fire. Polly came out and placed a heavy old cauldron on top, and Mother poured all the old beeswax and bits and pieces of leftover candles into it, stirring slowly. The huge mass slowly liquefied, and a sharp honey smell wafted in the pale sunlight.
Will had carried two small, low tables outside, and set them a few inches apart. Now Bess and Polly helped Mary to tie long pieces of wick to twigs. They lined the twigs up, one after the other between the two tables, wicks hanging down through the gap. When the wax in the cauldron was the perfect consistency, everyone joined in the candle dipping. Bess, Polly, Will, Mother and Mary walked back and forth to the fire with a twig in each hand, dipping each wick into the pot and coating it in a layer of melted beeswax, then hanging them back in the gap between the tables to cool and harden. They repeated this process over and over again, for all the hours of the morning until the midday sun rose small and cold overhead.
When the candles were thick enough, everyone trooped inside and sat around the kitchen table eating delicious suet rolls filled with steak, kidney, apples and raisins that Mary had baked that morning.
“What a strange, warm day,” remarked Father, and Mary frowned and said:
Once the dishes were cleared away, Bess helped Mother cut down all the glossy, sweetly-scented yellow candles from the twigs outside, trim the wicks, and stack them between layers of paper in drawers. It was a comforting feeling to have a large amount of candles again. Their supplies always dwindled low during the dark months; one particularly stormy year, they’d had to buy store-made candles from Ivy Stoughton’s father’s shop in the Village, because they’d burned every candle in the house before Candlemas.
When the sky began to grow dark early, the Ashetons put on their finest clothes and combed their hair. Father hitched Dobbin to the sled outside the kitchen door, and everybody tumbled in and skimmed down the Main Road to the Village Church. It was very cold sitting in the family pew, but the Church looked beautiful, lit with hundreds of flickering candles. The vicar led a candlelit procession down the aisle to celebrate Jesus as the “light of the world”, then commenced a very solemn mass. Bess could never understand why the more joyous the holiday, the gloomier the vicar seemed to be. She ignored his droning voice and marvelled instead at the hundreds of tallow candles twinkling around the Church like heavenly stars. The flames danced and flickered in the cold drafts, but the light they cast was liquid gold. Candlelight shone on the sorrowful faces of the saints in the stained-glass windows, and made the highly-polished altarware sparkle. After mass, everybody in the congregation pulled out candles they had brought with them, to be blessed and taken home as lucky talismans for the rest of the year.
“It’s crepe time!” announced Will as they piled back into the sled and snuggled under the furs.
“Will,” admonished Mother. “We are celebrating the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Stop thinking about your stomach.”
“I can’t help it,” muttered Will. “It’s frightfully cold in Church, and when I get cold, I get hungry.”
As the little sled flew up the Main Road toward Wych Elm Gate, a half-moon illuminated the dark woods and firs in silver, sending their long shadows across the snowy pastures. The farmhouse was lit up like a dollhouse on top of the hill, for Mary had stoked every fireplace, filled with house with candles and placed candlesticks in every window. Little lights glimmered through the naked apple trees as well, for a candle had been placed alongside each beehive to bless them all.
Cold and hungry, the Ashetons entered the kitchen to find a mountain of hot crepes on the table, and the kettle singing on the hob. “Pull up a chair, or I’ll eat them all myself,” said Mary, flipping a thin crepe high in the air. Nobody needed asking twice. Mother, Father, Polly, Will and Bess opened an earthenware honeypot and drizzled honey all over their plates. It was a sizeable feast, and it made Bess feel much better about the dreariest, stormiest month of the year.