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A Lamb in Winter: A History of Brigid’s Day and Candlemas

Midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, peoples of the northern hemisphere have long celebrated the birth of spring on Brigid's Day and Candlemas.

By Kevin Wright

©2013

By early February, midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, peoples of the northern hemisphere watch eagerly for the first harbingers of spring. Ancient Gaels marked the end of the dead quarter of the year and the birth of spring with the festival of Imbolc. The name of this cross-quarter day in the agricultural calendar derives either from the Old Irish, oimelc, meaning, “ewe's milk,” or from imbolg, meaning “in the belly,” referring to pregnant ewes and (metaphorically perhaps) to an expectancy of nature’s rebirth.

In a pastoral age, declining daylight in autumn set the biological clock ticking, triggering a start to the lambing season in late January. With natural timing, newborn lambs nourished on ewes’ milk for three or four weeks before they were able to nibble hay or graze on the first greening pastures. The advantages of winter lambing included the availability of farm labor in the off-season and the high prices traditionally paid for lamb during Eastertide. Highly nutritious, sheep's milk was also a welcome addition to the lean larder in late winter, being commonly used for cheese making because of its higher solids content. Despite a short milking season, sheep’s-milk cheeses include some Blue Cheeses, Feta, Fiore Sardo, Manchego, Pecorino, Petit Basque, Ricotta, Roquefort and Zamorano.

To feed lactating ewes until green pasturage became available, farmers had to calculate the remaining weeks of cold weather to effectively husband supplies of grain. Before the advent of meteorology, weather prognostication relied largely upon reading such natural indicators of spring’s approach as the emergence of hibernating animals from their dens−−−hence, the association of Groundhog’s Day with the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc. According to one old saying, “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter, have another flight; If Candlemas bring clouds and rain, go winter, and come not again.”

Homebound in deep winter, ancient Gaels invoked Bhrigid (Bridget) on Imbolc, a maternal goddess long associated with the warmth of the domestic hearth, the fiery crafts of metalworking and tallow making, the flame of poetic inspiration, midwifery, sacred wells and medicinal practices. A perpetual flame at Kildare burned in her honor.

On the eve of her feast day, all work involving turning wheels was suspended as Bhrigid traveled the countryside with her totemic animal, a white, red-eared cow, offering protection and prosperity to households that welcomed her with special cakes and a sheaf of grain. In anticipation, country folk swept the hearth clean, spreading scutched straw on the floor for bedding in anticipation of her visit. Some went so far as to prepare a basket-cradle for a corn dolly representing Brigid, fashioned according to varying local traditions either from a churn dasher or from woven oat straw, but always decorated with ribbons, shiny charms, such as stones or shells, or even flowers that bloomed through the snow. They then called out from the threshold, “Bride’s bed is ready! Let Bride come in! Bride is welcome!” In some places, Biddy Boys and Girls went singing door-to-door, collecting donations of bread and butter and lighting their path with a hollowed turnip lantern, mounted atop a stick, a candle beaming through its cutout eyes, nose and mouth.

Rushes were also carefully woven to form a sun wheel, known as Brigid’s cross (crois Bhríde), which was hung above doorways in houses and barns for protection against lightning. Though milk was scarce at this season, it was customary for young and old, male and female, to take a turn at the dasher, churning butter to serve with a special dish of mashed potatoes, prepared with spring onions and butter, known as “champ,” “poundies,” or brúitín in Gaelic. The pot of boiled potatoes was customarily set in the middle of the kitchen floor on a bed of straw, where each member of the family took a turn at mashing. Brúitín was traditionally served with a large helping of freshly churned butter.

In testimony to Brigid’s reputation for healing, womenfolk commonly placed a piece of unwashed linen or ribbon, called Brigid's Brat, or Mantle, on a bush, hoping Brigid in her travels would touch the cloth, giving it curative powers. It was retrieved after dark, torn to pieces and distributed to guard against misfortune and illness.

Over time, Christianity missionaries transferred many attributes from the ancient protectress of the hearth to St. Bridget, founder and abbess of a convent at Cill-Dara (literally, “Cell of the Oak,” now Kildare). Known also as Mary of the Gaels, St. Brigid is renowned for establishing a famous school of arts-and-crafts, which specialized in teaching metal work and manuscript illumination. Incorporating a sympathetic tradition from the Mediterranean world, Irish folklore also depicted Brigid attending the Purification of the Virgin Mary with lighted candle. To understand why, let us turn southward and far back into time.  

Ancient Greeks and Romans mythologized the changing seasons through the story of Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, who abducted Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, for his wife and queen. Ceres, the goddess of grain and fertility, so mourned her daughter’s absence that she allowed no plant or animal life to grow. Jupiter then arranged for Proserpina to return to the world of light for six months out of the year, explaining the cycle of seasons. Accordingly, Romans paraded through the streets with lit candles at the start of February, imitating Ceres, who searched the cold darkness for her missing daughter by candlelight.

Venerable Bede, who published The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 C. E., thought the church wisely assimilated the ancient pagan “custom of lustration” into its celebration of Candlemas, having “the whole people with the priests and ministers go in procession through the churches and suitable parts of the city with the singing of hymns, all carrying in their hands burning wax lights, given them by the [Roman] pontiff.” Conveniently, Western Christianity commemorated the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin at this time of year, marking the occasion when the Virgin Mary would have gone up to the Temple for purification under Mosaic Law, forty days after the birth of a male child. The prophet Simeon, informed “that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ,” greeted the infant Jesus, announcing him as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” 

This Christian Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, originated in Jerusalem, but was originally observed forty days after Epiphany (January 6). By the end of the Fourth Century, the Latin Rite moved the feast to February 2nd, marking forty days after Christmas (December 25). For its celebration, church officials instituted a ceremony of blessing and distributing wax candles, substituting a holy day commemorating the walk of Mary and Joseph to the Temple for the enduring pagan custom of marching in candlelit procession during Lupercalia and the Feast of Ceres. In keeping with older established traditions, blessed candles were distributed to protect the faithful against thunder and lightning. Borrowing further from irrepressible pagan customs and Brigid’s supposed healing ministry, the Roman Church instituted the Feast of St. Blaise on the third of February, holding crossed candles at the throats of believers to protect against choking and throat ailments.

For centuries, Candlemas has marked the end of the Christmas season, when Christians superstitiously purified their houses of holly, berries and mistletoe. Robert Herrick, in his “Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve” urges,

Down with the rosemary and bays

Down with the mistletoe

Instead of holly, now up-raise

The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway

Let box now domineer

Until the dancing Easter day

Or Easter's eve appear.

Folk belief further identified natural phenomena associated with Brigid’s Day and Candlemas. For example, it was commonly held that birds mated on Candlemas. Seeing a lark on St. Brigid’s Day was taken as a good omen of spring. Likewise, country folk gathered the earliest flowers to bloom in late winter, often peeking through the snow cover, especially the snowdrop, which was called the Purification Flower, the Candlemas Bell, or the Fair Maid of February. Full of milky white juice, dandelions were also associated with Brigid’s Day.

As the golden crepe resembles the sun, pancakes were a traditional Candlemas food, especially in France, where they are known as Crêpes de la Chandeleur. This may also harken back to an ancient Roman custom of burning meal-cakes, a pancake-like bread prepared by the Vestal Virgins, on February 15th in honor of Lupercus, the patron deity of shepherds and their flocks.

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So welcome the lengthening days and learn more about the back-to-back midwinter feasts of Brigit’s Day and Candlemas at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201-1209 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661 from 1 to 5 P.M. on Sunday, January 27, 2013. Suggested donations: $7 per adult, $5 per child, BCHS members, free. For info, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org

Accomplished harpist Ardis A. Cavin, an adjunct professor at Bergen Community College, will give a 45-minute performance of Irish ballads on Celtic harp in the Steuben House at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. She was recently featured in a Channel 13 program, “Ballads from Britain.” 

Candle making will be demonstrated at the Out Kitchen. A special exhibit of antique lighting devices, ranging from a 2,000-year-old oil lamp to examples of the earliest light bulbs, will be displayed in the Dwelling Room of the Steuben House. Throughout the afternoon, an à la carte menu of seasonal treats, including crepes, mashed potatoes, soda bread and hot cider will be available in the Campbell-Christie House, a restored 18th-century tavern. The Gift Shop will sell handmade Brigid’s Crosses, which Donal O'Riordain, of County Cork, Ireland, weaves from fresh rushes cut from the lakeshore. He learned this ancient folk craft from his grandmother, who made the Crosses as far back as the 1940s. She passed away in 1994, aged 87 years.

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