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Archive for February 2nd, 2011

If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year. –  English folk saying

The Celtic holiday called Imbolc was in Ireland called ‘Brigit’s Day’ in honor of their great goddess Brigit, patroness of fire, blacksmithing and healing.  I’ve pointed out before that as Christianity spread most of the old festivals became Christian ones and most of the old gods were declared to be devils and demons, but some gods were far too popular to be demonized and became Christian figures instead.  Many of Mithra’s characteristics were transferred to Jesus and it should be obvious that much of the Blessed Mother’s mythology is inherited from the mother goddesses who came before her.  Odin was identified with Saint Nicholas and Strenia became Befana, and in similar fashion the goddess Brigit became Saint Brigit, explained away as an early Christian missionary who performed miracles and was thus taken for a goddess by the “ignorant” pagans.

Since Brigit’s Day was celebrating by the kindling or tending of sacred fires, her festival became the Christian holiday Candlemas, the day on which all candles to be used in church in the next year are blessed.  These blessed candles were then used on February 3rd, St. Blaise’s Day, to bless the throats of parishioners so as to protect them from ailments of the throat (especially choking).  Note that the symbolism (candles, symbolic of fire, to effect healing) is obviously transferred from Brigit.  Candlemas was also the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (since it falls six weeks after Christmas it is the day on which she would have been “purified” from childbirth and thus allowed back into the temple).  It’s interesting how some symbols are consistent across cultures, since pagans celebrate today as that on which the Great Mother is reborn as the Maiden Goddess (which corresponds nicely to the “restoration” of the Christian mother goddess Mary).

In old Celtic and Germanic belief, all of the cross-quarter days (Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain) could be used to predict the weather of the remaining six weeks of the season in reverse; in other words if Lammas was bright and sunny the autumn would come early, whereas if it were cloudy and rainy the summer would last until Mabon.  Thus, it was believed (as shown in today’s epigram) that a bright, clear Imbolc meant cold weather would last until the vernal equinox, while a cold, gloomy one meant the end of winter was near.  But since the relative weather on any given day can be subjectively interpreted (what if it’s partly cloudy and of middling temperature?) the custom arose among Germanic peoples to allow a sacred animal (usually a bear or badger) to prognosticate by observing whether it emerged from hibernation on that day.

The tradition survived into Christian times (though generalized to any animal of the species rather than a particular sacred one) and was carried to Pennsylvania by the German settlers who called themselves “Pennsylvania Deutsch” (later corrupted into “Pennsylvania Dutch”).  In the absence of bears and badgers the tradition became attached to the groundhog (Marmota monax), a sort of large burrowing squirrel, and in North American tradition Candlemas became “Groundhog Day”.  Interestingly, as urbanization made groundhogs harder to find the organizers of Groundhog Day festivals were forced to again choose one sacred animal whose whereabouts could be ascertained on the big day.  The largest such festival is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and the sacred groundhog there is named “Punxsutawney Phil”; he is cared for by a priesthood called the “Inner Circle” who also organize the Groundhog Festival every year.  The festival and its attendant celebrations figure prominently in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, which I can highly recommend both as a comedy and as a psychologically and philosophically intriguing character exploration.

Devotees of the Groundhog Festival, like pagans, consider this a day of joy and celebration; here’s my usual holiday feature, a short essay from my witch friend JustStarshine on the spiritual significance of this day for us.

The Significance of Imbolc

‘Imbolc’ is an old word meaning “in milk” and referred to pregnant ewes, who were viewed as a sign that new life was returning to the land.  In times when there was no certainty that winter would give way to spring and people were living on what had been harvested and salted down from the previous year one can only imagine the relief when they received proof that the wheel had indeed turned.

For witches it’s a time of cleansing and purification – for spring-cleaning, both physically and mentally; a time to sweep away the debris of winter and make way for new ways and ideas, to start afresh with new energy.  On our altars we have snowdrops and other late winter bulbs and white and pale-green candles.  Before beginning our ritual we sweep the area we will be working widdershins, thinking all  the while of the  things we would wish to sweep away from our lives.

We celebrate the fact that the Goddess has returned as Bride, a young maiden dancing joyfully through the land, the first flowers appearing wherever her feet have touched the ground.  She has brought fertility back to the earth.

The whole ritual is dedicated to the first stirrings of the light and we kindle three candles, one for a friend and one for ourselves, asking that we both may cast off all  old worries and concerns.  When we light the third candle for the world we ask for whatever we think would make it a better place, how we can avoid damaging it further and how we can develop a tolerance and understanding of our fellow humans and all the other creatures that inhabit Planet Earth so that all may all live in peace.

I ask that all my readers, no matter what your beliefs may be, experience at this time a cleansing of negative influences from your lives and a fresh influx of new positive ones.  Blessed Be!

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