Feb. 2 is one of the great cross-quarter days which make up the wheel of the year. It falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and in many traditions is considered the beginning of spring.
In Western Europe, this was the time for preparing the fields for the first planting. Pamela Berger has written a book, The Goodess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint, about the rituals celebrated at this time of year, when the ground is first awakened and the seed placed in the belly of the earth. This is a significant moment in a community which depends on the earth for sustenance. The fields were purified and offerings were made to the goddess.
The promises of the return of the light and the renewal of life which were made at the winter solstice are now becoming manifest. It's the dawn of the year. It's the time when a woman who is pregnant begins showing. It's time to creep out of the hibernation of winter, cautiously, like the Ground Hog who supposedly emerges on this day to check his shadow. It's the time of germination. This is a traditional time for new beginnings. Covens of witches usually initiate new members at this time.
What is the best way to celebrate? Candles and Christmas Greens The main element of your decorating scheme for Candlemas is fairly obvious: candles. You can gather all the candles in your home in one room and light them from one central candle. Or place a candle in each window (but watch them carefully).
Candlemas is one of the traditional times for taking down Christmas decorations (Twelfth Night, on Jan. 6, is the other). If you are very careful (because they are tinder dry), you can burn them. Or, better yet, return them to the earth mother by using them for compost or mulch.
Certain foods are traditional for Candlemas, including crepes, pancakes and cakes, all grain-based foods. Pancakes and crepes are considered symbols of the sun because of their round shape and golden color.
If you have a fireplace, clean out your hearth and light a new fire. Sit around the fire and reflect on your hopes for the coming year. What do you hope to accomplish? What are you passionate about? What seeds do you wish to plant? Discuss these ideas with others or write them down in a journal, but make them concrete in some way so that on Lammas (Aug. 2, the festival of the first harvest), you can look back to see your progress.
Brigid is the goddess of creative inspiration as well as reproductive fertility. This is a good time for sharing creative work, or, if you don't think of yourself as especially creative, an idea that worked or a plan that materialized. Thank the Goddess for her inspiration, perhaps by dedicating a future work to her.
In San Francisco, the Reclaiming Collective sponsors a public ritual called Brigid, which focuses on political commitment. After acknowledging despair over the events of the past year, the participants reflect on the source of their own power and then make a pledge in front of the community about the work they intend to do during the coming year. During this ritual, the flames in a cauldron represent Brigid's Sacred Flame, the fire of inspiration and passion, while a punch bowl filled with waters gathered from all over the world represents Brigid's Holy Well, the source of healing and purification.
If you plan your own ceremony, use these two powerful symbols: fire and water. For instance, wash your hands and bathe your face in salt water, which is especially good for purification. Light a candle as you make your pledge. Incorporate the third symbol of the holiday--seeds--by planting a seed or bulb in a pot to symbolize your commitment, or by blessing a bowl or packet of seeds that you will plant later.
Since the Christian season of Lent can sometimes begin as early as Feb. 4, some Candlemas customs have became associated with Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (the day before Lent's beginning on Ash Wednesday), which is a time of purification.
Have you ever given anything up for Lent? If not, you might consider it. You don't have to be Christian to gain spiritual benefits from the voluntary surrender of something you cherish. You can give up something frivolous or something serious, but it should be something you will notice. Folk wisdom says it takes six weeks (or approximately the 40 days of Lent) to establish a new habit, so you may end up with a lifestyle change.
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.
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.