CANDLEMAS: The Light Returns

            by Mike Nichols

    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, 
litterally, '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 follwing 
day, St. Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles 
to bless the throats of parishoners, 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 (in 1988, February 3rd, at 9:03 am CST).  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, 
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.