Our coven celebrates February 2 as Candlemas, following the custom of our parent Tradition; it is known by many other names, however – Brigidh, Imbolc, Oimelg, and others.
The word Imbolc is said to derive from the Old Irish Imbolg meaning in the belly, and placing the first seed in the belly of the earth was a significant moment in an agricultural community. Oimelc, another name for the festival, means “ewe’s milk” and refers to the pregnant sheep coming into milk at this time of year.
It’s no accident that Groundhog Day and Candlemas are celebrated together, for both signify the triumph of light over darkness, spring over winter.
As with many festivals in the Christian liturgical calendar, this one has its origins in ancient Rome.
In Roman times, candles were carried through the streets and women observed purification rites. Even today, in many countries, women who had borne children the year before participate in candlelit processions – an activity the Church gladly welcomes as it symbolizes the purification of the Virgin Mary.
In ancient Celtic cultures, the period between February 1st and 2nd is called Imbolc – the first day of spring, midway through the dark half of the year. It was a time when the stirring of new life manifested itself in the first flow of milk in the udders of pregnant ewes – a sure sign that the lambing season was about to begin. The Church tried to replace Imbolc which was dedicated to the Goddess of Youth and Fertility – Bride. Thus, in the 5th century, February 1st became St. Brighid’s Day and February 2nd became Candlemas.
There’s a popular legend which explains why Candlemas falls immediately after St. Brighid’s Day. Mary was very nervous about bringing the infant Jesus to the crowded Temple. St. Brighid promised to help her by distracting the crowds. She did this by appearing to the multitude wearing a headdress bearing many lighted candles. In gratitude, Mary decreed that a feast day honoring St. Brighid should take place the day before Candlemas.
Since the traditional Candlemas celebration anticipated the planting of crops, a central focus of the festivities was the forecasting of either an early spring or a lingering winter. Sunshine on Candlemas was said to indicate the return of winter. Similarly, “When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day / There it will stick till the second of May.”
Weather forecasts were often made on this date. It was once believed that if the day was sunny and fair, more winter weather was to come, but if a lark was heard singing, that was a sign of an early spring. There is also a lot of folklore as well as superstitions involving candles. These are necessarily related to Candlemas and they’re not exclusive to Ireland; however, since so many candles are lit on this day, it would be prudent to know what certain signs mean.
In of France and England, a bear brought the forecast to the people, while those in Germany looked to a badger for a sign. In the 1800s, German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought their Candlemas legends with them. Finding no badgers but lots of groundhogs, or woodchucks, there, they adapted the New World species to fit the lore, hence, in the United States, we now observe “Groundhog’s Day”.
Other sayings about the day include:
- If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another fight
- If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, Winter won’t come again
- If Candlemas Day be dry and fair, Then half o the winter’s to come and mair
- If Candlemas Day be wet and foul, Then half o the winter’s gone at yule
- If Candlemas be fair and clear there’ll be twa (two) winters in the year.
In keeping with the theme of Candlemas, it has long been the day when our coven gathers to make our candles for the year. Each member dips several wicks for tapers of their own, we make a “coven set” for each of the Sabbat festivals, and a set for the monthly esbats, as well as smaller votive and tea lights for various spell work. These are then blessed on the altar, the Sabbat cnaldes will be blessed by the Sun and the Esbat candles blessed by the Moon.
A bright spark in the wick is sometimes said to indicate that a stranger is coming or that a letter will arrive for the person nearest to the candle. A wavering flame where there is no draft is a harbinger of windy weather. A candle that doesn’t light easily foretells rain, and in some areas, a bluish flame means frost.
It was considered very ill-omened to leave a candle burning in an empty room. The only exception is the Christmas candle which should be left to burn all through the night of Christmas Eve to light the way for the Holy Family and also to ensure light, warmth and plenty in the coming year.
To snuff out a candle by accident is a sign of a wedding; and no candle should ever be allowed to burn down to the socket of the candlestick. It should be blown out before that. Otherwise, misfortune may come to someone in the house, and in certain coastal areas, a sailor or fisherman may drown at sea.
At one time it was thought to be very unlucky to light three candles with a single taper. This superstition has survived in the avoidance of lighting three cigarettes with one match. It was also asking for misfortune to burn three candles at the same time. Apparently, Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader was well-acquainted with the superstition. In his book, Life of Parnell, Barry O’Brien writes that a friend once visited Parnell when he was ill and found him lying in a bedroom illuminated by four candles. During the visit, one of the candles went out; Parnell immediately snuffed out another while remarking how unlucky it was to have three lights burning together.
Finally, in this brief look at candle lore, it is said to be very ill-omened to light a candle from the fire on the hearth. There are those who believe that if a person does this, they will become impoverished. As a measure of protection from this misfortune or any others for that matter, here is a blessing by Father Andrew Greeley1, written expressly for the saints who celebrate their feast days in February:
May good St. Brighid keep you warn till spring
And fill your head with poetry and song
May your true heart with the help of Valentine
Love you deeply this month and all year long
May Blaise protect you from the common cold and sore throat, hacking cough and snuffy nose
May Mother Mary’s candles light your road and at the end of the day bring sweet repose
And may God, who tells the stories of His love through the saints, who love us too, bless you.
Some recipes for your Candlemas feast can be found at the following sites:
For other activities you can do, read this blog post from Patheos: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/fromacommonwell/2018/01/18-celtic-imbolc-customs-traditions-feast-brighid/
1. Irish American Blessings & Prayers by Andrew Greeley