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Imbolc and it's Origin - Submitted by Nicole DeRushie



Festival of the Virgin or Smith-Goddess?

Though the celebration of Candlemas is mentioned just briefly in Le Morte Darthur by Malory, it is a subject that is itself worthy of closer study. An ancient festival, its exact origins are lost to history; though it is certainly older than its Catholic fašade. Possible roots for Candlemas exist throughout Europe, especially in ancient holidays such as Imbolc and the Feast of Februa. Why should such an obscure festival interest those living in modern times? It is a festival that is now celebrated by very few, and to most is no more than an intriguing historical footnote. Studying the evolution of Candlemas shows us not only the changing religious face of Britain in particular, but allows us a glimpse into the seasonally-affected lives of the people who celebrated it.

By the middle ages, February second was a Catholic festival of purification. The tradition of churching or purifying a woman forty days after giving birth was common throughout the middle ages and beyond. Before this time, a woman in the recovery period was considered unclean because of the sin in which she brings children into the world. February second was a day to commemorate the purification of Mary after giving birth to Christ, and therefore occurs forty days after Christmas. In the north, it is called the Wives Feast Day (Brand, p. 43), one indication of the important part that women play in this celebration. The name Candlemas derives from the tradition of carrying candles in procession to the church. It was traditional for women in England to bear lights when they were churched (Brand, p. 45), and for other paritioners to bear lights alongside them in their honour. Bacon writes that Pope Sergius commanded that all the people should go on procession upon Candlemass Day, and carry candels about with them brenning in their hands in the year of our Lord, 684 (Brand, p. 44). It became traditional for churches to be lighted with as many candles as possible on this day. These candles were supposedly endowed with special powers of protection and healing. In Poland in particular, these candles were called gromnica. They were distributed to the people who used them throughout the year as protection from evil (Zajaczkowa, p. 1). The celebration of Candlemas was also a point of heated debate and contention in the church. The dispute was over the fact that because Christ was divinely conceived there was no sin that required cleansing. In essence, Mary did not technically require a cleansing, so why would the church celebrate it? Doing so would only deny the miracle of immaculate conception.

One argument concerning this debate is over the idea that Candlemas was not originally a Catholic celebration at all. Opinion on this possibility has been divided in the past. Some scholars on popular customs of Britain claim that the idea of Candlemas being ...a Christian festival engrafted upon a heathen one, in order to take advantage of the established habits of the people... is doubtful (Chambers, p. 213). The similarities between Candlemas and more ancient festivals are compelling. Hazlitt calls Candlemas a graft or aftergrowth, pointing to the inconsistency with immaculate conception, described above, as proof. Instead, he argues that The candles at the Purification were an exchange for the lustrations of the Pagans... (p. 85). One source for the celebration may have been a Greek festival called uoaoamta (hupapanta), translated as a meeting, ...because Simeon and Anna the prophetess met in the Temple at the presentation of our Saviour (Hazlitt, p. 85). An ancient source which sounds more closely related is a festival celebrated by the Romans: the feast of Februa. On this night, the Romans carried lit torches and candles through the streets of Rome to the temples of Februa in honour of her son, Mars. Bacon describes the transition thus: Then there was a Pope [called] Sergius, and when he saw Christian people drawn to this false maumetry and untrue belief, he thought to undo this foule use and custom, and turn it to Gods worship and our Ladys, and gave commandment that all Christian people should come to church and offer up a candle brennyng... so that now this feast is solemnly hallowed thorowe all Christendome (Brand, p. 44). Though clearly flavoured by Catholic righteousness, this argument does admit that the roots of Candlemas were Pagan.

There are many fascinating rural traditions associated with Candlemas. It is traditionally the time to remove every last scrap of Christmas or Yule greenery from inside the house. To allow such decoration to remain longer would be to invite misfortune upon the home. The brittle boughs and branches are swept out and burned, with special attention given to cracks, corners, and rugs so that no trace of it may inadvertently be left behind. Other traditions have even less to do with religion. Weather prediction is an important part of the rural Candlemas tradition, the root of our modern Groundhog Day. There are many rhymes and proverbs associated with the second of February. An oft-quoted weather rhyme is:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,

Winter will have another flight,

If Canlemas Day be clouds and rain,

Winter be gone and will not come again. (Baker, p. 22)

or, more whimsically:

On Candlemas Day if the thorns hang adrop,

You can be sure of a good pea crop. (Baker, p. 22)

As an introduction to the figure of Briget, perhaps the most interesting of Candlemas traditions comes out of the Hebridean islands where, The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in womens apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briids bed; and then [they] cry three times, Briid is come, Briid is welcome. This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briids club there; which is a portent of a good crop and a prosperous year (Brand, p. 50-51). Briid, later called Briget, Brigantia, Breed, Brighid, and, to Catholics, St. Bridget, was an important figure in Pagan Britain. She was goddess of smiths, poets, and the hearth. To many medieval Christians, however, she was Bridget, 'foster mother' of Christ, or Mary's midwife. At Kildare in Ireland, both pagan priestesses and later Christian nuns kept an eternal flame burning in her name (Zajaczkowa, p. 1). The figure of Briget, in both her Pagan and Christian forms, was said to wander the countryside on Candlemas eve, bringing blessings to both the people and the animals she met (Davidson, p. 39).

Considering the above connection with Bridget, the true root of Candlemas in Britain may very well be the quarter festival of Imbolc, otherwise known as Oimelc, which translates as sheeps milk. It was a festival in honour of the goddess Briid, in all her aspects. Ever practical, Britons celebrated the beginning of spring on this day with preparation for the coming year. Tools of iron were blessed, as Briget is the patron goddess of smithcrafts. Farmers plowed their fields, if the ice had relented. Fishermen prepared their boats. Ewes were lactating in preparation for the coming lambing period. Pagan Celts were highly intuned to the wheel of the year that was turning to favour the growing things of the earth. It was traditionally the time to make fresh starts, cleaning out the old and welcoming in the new. It was also a favourable time to be married, to renew vows, or to begin other new pursuits.

There are few left today who continue celebrating either Imbolc or Candlemas; but those that do are following an ancient and complicated tradition. It is a spiritual and practical holiday with roots that stretch possibly to the furthest corners of Europe.


Works Cited

Baker, Margaret. Folklore and Customs of Rural England. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.

Brand, John and Sir Henry Ellis. Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions Vol. 1. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.

Chambers, Robert, Ed. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities Vol. 1. Edinburgh: W&R Chambers, 1863.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Hazlitt, W. Carew. Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary Vol. 1. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Zajaczkowa, Jadwiga. Candlemas. Internet: Jennifer Heise, 1997.

2004: Nicole DeRushie.