This article appeared in the North Clare Local this February. Here’s some springtime traditions…
“O Wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Shelley once asked. Luckily, spring is returning and the first shoots are peeking through.
Spring in the Celtic calendar begins on February 1, St Brigid’s Day. St Brigid is one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Saints Patrick and Columba. The first day of spring was known as “Imbolg” in pre-Christian Ireland, and was celebrated as one of the key Celtic festivals.
Many have argued in recent times that St Brigid is the Christianisation of Brigid, the Celtic goddess of arts, crafts, healing and sovereignty. Brigid was the name often given to the Chieftain’s daughter, and the first Abbess of Kildare was the child of the chief Dubhthach.
Many of us remember making Brigid’s crosses during primary school, and the St Brigid’s cross was used in the logo of RTE for many years. These crosses, usually made of rushes, were said to protect a house from fire. St Brigid is believed to have made the first cross while consoling a pagan chieftain on his deathbed. The man was delirious with illness, and so there was concern that he would not understand the saint’s Christian message. However, by making the cross from the rushes on the floor, Brigid helped the chieftain to believe in Christ before he did.
The Imbolg festival was a time of divination, especially concerning weather for the coming year. It was believed that the cailleach, or hag, went collecting her firewood on St Brigid’s Day. To make her fuel collection worthwhile, she will make winter last longer. If February 1 is bright, beware! It just means the hag has arranged a pet day in order to gather her logs for the extended winter.
A similar tradition continues today in America, although Groundhog Day is descended from German custom. If a groundhog (a type of marmot) sees its shadow on February 2, the weather will not improve in the next six weeks. Made famous by the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, the largest festival takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where thousands await the verdict of Punxsutawney Phil. Phil has only been right 39% of the time, however, so maybe you would be better off watching the weather forecast.
Back home, there is an annual festival celebrating St Brigid in her native Kildare, incorporating a craft fair, talks and guided walks around the town.
Of course the other big saint’s day in February is Valentine’s. Poor Valentine has gotten a rough deal. Many cynics, myself included, completely disparage and disregard his day as commercialism at its worst, and even the Catholic Church doesn’t consider him worth remembering anymore. Of course, for happy couples, Valentine’s Day is extremely important.
The story goes that St Valentine was martyred for marrying Roman soldiers and their belles. The Emperor of the time thought that bachelors made better soldiers, and so forbade any soldiers from getting hitched. However, Val knew better and lost his head for it.
Valentine is believed to rest in Dublin, and you can see his remains at the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street. If that’s too close to home, you can always enjoy the wonderfully macabre spectacle of his skull, crowned with flowers, at the Santa Maria Basilica in Cosmedin, Rome. Romantic, no?
Valentine’s Day has become a global phenomenon, but personally, I like the Finnish idea of Friends’ Day, which as the name suggests, is a day to celebrate all your connections, not just the romantic ones.
What would Valentine’s Day be without flowers? Three are synonymous with this time of year: the snowdrop, the crocus and the daffodil. The snowdrop is often the first flower to appear in spring, and its tiny, frail appearance belies its toughness. A lovely English name for them is February fairmaids, but the English believe they are very unlucky if they are brought indoors, even causing death.
No such misfortune attaches itself to the crocus, which was believed to be the aphrodisiac of the Greek gods, namely Zeus and Hera. Indeed, in flower language, crocus stands for youthful gladness. And if you want to meet your future husband, wear a crocus on Valentine’s Day.
The daffodil, however, is a symbol of unrequited love. Its scientific name, Narcissus, comes from the Greek myth concerning a youth of that name, who became so enamoured with his own reflection that he fell into a river and drowned. More positively, the daffodil is a good luck symbol in the Far East and is the national flower of Wales. In recent years, it has become associated with cancer charities around the world. Its bright petals and annual renewal sends an apt message to those suffering with the disease and their families.
I hope spring is a time of renewal and happiness for all readers and their families.