Following the Winter Solstice, the days are noticeably longer by the time the next holiday arrives, whether we call it Imbolc, Brigid’s Day or Candlemas. And what date is it anyway, the 1st or 2nd of February?
Fact is, what we celebrate as the mid-point between Yule and Ostara was originally several different holy-days, with separate origins and dates, but with a few broad thematic points in common.
Brigid is the Irish name of the great Triple Goddess of the Celtic empire. She was hailed as Brigantia in England, Bride in Scotland (where Her symbol is the white swan), and Brigandu in Celtic France.
Fire is Her element, and the arts of poetry, medicine and smith-craft fall under Her particular provenance. She’s identified with Mother Earth Herself, childbirth and the fertility of the soil, and is credited with the invention of both whistling and mournful keening. She’s credited with teaching the foxes to dance. In Ireland, Her principle shrine was at Kildare, where Her priestesses kept an eternal flame well-stoked.
In the sixth century, February 1st became Saint Brigid’s Day on the Catholic calendar when Irish worship of the goddess and Imbolc, Her cross-quarters holiday, proved impossible to eradicate. A fictitious history was concocted to transform a Goddess into a saintly human, and her Kildare shrine evolved into a nunnery. Even as a saint, Brigid’s miracles concern fertility and She remains the patroness of poets, blacksmiths, midwives, healers and the hearth.
Recognizing Her ancient power, the Kildare nuns sang, “Brigid, excellent woman, sudden flame, may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom.”
Candlemas, on February 2nd, is a separate holiday overlaid with a variety of church traditions as the Festival of the Purification of the Virgin. According to Mosaic Law, women were soiled by the act of childbearing and could “touch no hallowed thing, nor come into sanctuary” for a proscribed time after giving birth. February 2nd, falling forty days after Christmas, marked the official end of Mary’s imposed isolation after the birth of Jesus. Incidentally, giving birth to a daughter was considered even dirtier work, with eighty days of “purification” required.
Whether this custom had its roots in male fears of female procreativity or was originally a welcome opportunity for the new mother and baby to rest and bond, the name Candlemas came from the the fact that the year’s supply of church candles were blessed at the February 2nd mass, which gets us back — albeit circuitously — to fire.
The first half of February, starting on the 2nd, was originally dedicated to Juno Februata, worshipped in pagan Rome as the goddess who inspired the combustible fire, the fever — febris — of love. To honor Her, Romans carried burning candles with them throughout the city. This irritated early Christian authorities, who responded by co-opting the fire connotations of February 2nd as Candlemas.
The love-fest portion of the energy was pushed a couple weeks back to St. Valentine’s Day in an attempt to “abolish the heathen’s lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing [lots for] the names of girls, in honor of their goddess Februata Juno…”
This mingled history gives us Brigid’s fire and fertile soil, Juno Februata’s love-fever, and plenty of potent images of heated creative skills: Poetry, smithing, healing, loving and birthing, all fanned by the first warm-winded hints of winter’s demise. In ritual, strike metal (a rhythmic beat on a Tibetan singing bowl, perhaps) and evoke Brigid’s smithy: How will Brigid’s smith-craft shape and temper our lives in the coming months?
RITUAL IDEAS and QUESTIONS
- “What projects fire me up right now?”
- “What old stuff can I cast away into the flames?”
- “What do I love? How do I feed that fire?”
To the sound of ringing metal, journey and ask Brigid to shape your life, smoothing out the rough spots, bringing in strength and beauty
* From the Howard Hawks film version of “To Have and Have Not,” 1944.
Robert Graves, The White Goddess; Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Goddess; Patricia Monaghan, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines; Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets; and (no kidding) Father Butler, Lives of the Saints. Originally printed in The Hole in the Stone magazine.