The kids in our neighborhood have eagerly embraced the idea of giving up something for Lent. We know one little girl who gave up TV for Lent and another who gave up catsup, her favorite food. In the last two years, I've given up alcohol and coffee for Lent. Forty days is enough time to notice the difference in the way you feel without a favorite substance or distraction.

Since Candlemas is often considered the beginning of spring, you can perform another ritual act of purification: spring cleaning. This would be a good time to do a thorough house cleaning, sweeping the floors with salt water, banishing the gloom of winter and creating a sparkling, shiny new setting for spring.

In Ireland, this holy day is called Imbolc and begins at sunset on Feb. 1, continuing through sunset Feb. 2. There are different derivations offered for the name Imbolc: from Ol-melc (ewe's milk) because the ewes are lactating at this time, from Im-bolg (around the belly) in honor of the swelling belly of the earth goddess, and from folcaim (I wash) because of the rites of purification which took place at this time. All of these explanations capture the themes of this festival.

Feb. 1 is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began her life as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian saint. She was a fire and fertility goddess. In her temple at Kildare, vestal virgins tended an eternal fire. On her feast day, her statue was washed in the sea (purification) and then carried in a cart through the fields surrounded by candles.

The legends about the goddess, Brigid, gradually became associated with (the somewhat spurious) Saint Brigid who founded the first convent in Ireland (where else?) at Kildare.

To celebrate St. Brigid's day, people put a loaf of bread on the windowsill for the Saint and an ear of corn for her white cow, offerings for the grain goddess like the loaf buried in the first furrow. A small quantity of special seeds are mixed with those to be sown. Wheat stalks are woven into X-shaped crosses to serve as charms to protect home from fire and lightning.

In the Highlands, women dress the corn doll or last sheaf (from Lammas or the autumn equinox) in a bridal gown and put her in a basket, which is called the Bride's bed. A wand, candle or other phallic object is laid across her and Bride is invited to come, for her bed is ready.

Later the Catholic Church superimposed a Christian holiday on this pagan festival. Jewish women went through a purification ceremony 40 days after the birth of a male child (80 days after the birth of a female child). So in the 6th century, Feb. 2 (39 days after Christmas) was declared the feast of the Purification of Mary. The theme of purification remained a link between the two holy days.

Like many miraculous babies, Jesus is recognized as a future hero from the time of his infancy. One of these recognitions occurs in Luke 2:21 when he is being presented in the temple (at the time of Mary's purification ) and a holy man, Simeon, recognizes him as the Christ, calling him "a light for revelation."

This is the ostensible reason given for the custom of bringing candles to church to be blessed by the priest on Feb. 2. They are then take home, where they serve as talismans and protections from all sorts of disasters. This custom is the origin for the name Candle-mass. In Hungary, according to Dorothy Spicer in The Book of Festivals, Feb. 2 is called Blessing of the Candle of the Happy Woman. In Poland, it is called Mother of God Who Saves Us From Thunder.

Actually, this festival has always been associated with fire. In ancient Armenia (writes Spicer), this was the date of the pagan spring festival in honor of Mihr, the God of fire. Originally, fires were built in his honor in open places and a lantern was lit which burned in the temple throughout the year. When Armenia became Christian, the fires were built in church courtyards instead. People danced about the flames, jumped over them and carried home embers to kindle their own fires from the sacred flames.

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