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Sunday, 6 February 2011

That February Feeling

According to the calendar followed by my Celtic ancestors, spring has begun. Traditionally, the feast of Imbolc (one of the four great days, along with Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain) was celebrated on February 1 or 2 as the beginning of spring, and so I learned it in school. In Ireland the Church had succeeded pretty well in christianising it under the feast of St. Bridget or Bríd. On the surface anyway.

St. Brigid's Cross
Bridget is a fascinating and amorphous character. Historically, the Christian tradition describes her as a woman of noble birth, possibly a direct convert of St. Patrick, who founded a double monastery (one for men, one for women) in Kildare. A woman of evidently strong character, she seems to have had the local bishop, Conleth, well under control. Veneration of her spread rapidly so that she is considered as the second patron of Ireland (after St. Patrick) and was often called “the Mary of the Gael.”

As is common with saints, and given the Irish love of stories, all sorts of legends grew up about her, many of which found their way into various hagiographies (Lives of the Saints) so beloved of medieval Christians.

But that’s only half of the story. There was also a Celtic goddess called Brigid (the spellings are interchangeable) and it has long been assumed that many of the legends associated with the Christian saint are simply baptised versions of the older pagan myths. Scholars argue happily about Brigid/Bríd and the whole Celtic pantheon; while there are many medieval sources (particularly Irish ones), there are practically none from the original believers. And, of course, it is not even easy to talk of “the Celts” as such, as there were hundreds of different groups, tribes and nations who are generally described under this category all over Western Europe – all of whom had their own traditions, legends, languages (even if related) and varieties of religions. There is a probable relationship between Brigid and the Britanic/Gallic/Iberoceltic Brigantia.

Behind all this, however, there seems to be a common nexus of themes involving the goddess, the coming of spring and the return of fertility to the earth. The Feast of Brigid (Imbolc) is associated in many parts of Ireland and Scotland with the Cailleach, the Hag, who is an important figure in folklore and possibly originally depicted one of the aspects of the goddess. This idea is taken up by modern neo-pagan groups, particularly the Wiccans with their depiction of the Triple Goddess, Maiden/Mother/Crone. A common theme is that February 1 is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intends the winter to last for a while yet she makes the day fine and sunny so that she can gather plenty. If the day is rainy and foul, this means that the Cailleach has preferred to sleep rather than collect more sticks and that therefore winter will soon be over.

When Europeans emigrated to American they seem to have brought elements of such legends with them, so that the traditional Candlemas Day, February 2, became Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil, spotting his shadow on a fine day and bolting back into his hole for another six weeks sleep, could well audition for a job as the Cailleach’s pet.

All of this shows that the old Celts (or Scotii as the Romans called them) of Ireland and Western Scotland were keen observers of nature and larger weather patterns. From a more scientific meteorological perspective, the length of winter and beginning of spring in the British Isles and Northwest Europe have a lot to do with the strength and position of the masses of chilly arctic air positioned over Scandinavia and their interplay with milder, wetter low-pressure cyclones sweeping in from the Atlantic with the Gulf Stream. If the Scandinavian high pressure area is still strong, winter still reigns and the chances of cold, clear days at the beginning of February are higher. If, on the other hand, the Atlantic storms are stronger, the cold air is pushed back north-eastwards and the (relatively) mild, wet windy spring is at hand.

All of this was unknown to me when I was a boy. What I remember is a feeling of incredulity on being told that spring began on February 1. Having to go to school on dark mornings through cold, pelting rain, I inclined to the opinion that February was the very epitome of winter; dark, dreary and somehow hopeless. In November and December there was at least Christmas to look forward to. By the time February came, you had the feeling that winter had been there forever and would never end, the evidence of snowdrops and crocuses notwithstanding. The old Saxon name for the month is Solmonath, which means Mud Month, and it sums up well, I suspect, what most of us feel about it.

It is the month when our energy levels are probably at their lowest, which probably also explains why so many of us succumb to colds and ‘flu around this time. Our immune systems have been worn down by cold and damp and lack of sunshine, we are more inclined to depression and just being fed up.

Of course, in the developed world, we still have it a lot better than most of our ancestors. February was formerly that month where it finally became clear just how much of the previous harvest was left and whether it would last until the first spring crops would become available. Cows were no longer giving milk and the chickens weren’t laying. It was the time when portions finally became smaller, when bellies became leaner and when the fasting season of Lent for most people was as much a product of the exigencies of existence as the privation of piety.

But basic human optimism is hard to keep down completely, and people made a festival out of necessity by throwing aside all thoughts of prudence, survival and decorum and celebrating Carnival before the Great Fast of Lent began. Carnival usually takes place in February unless, as is the case this year, Easter falls so exceptionally late that Ash Wednesday won’t be upon us until March 9. And, perhaps reflecting the slowly stirring fecundity and randiness of nature (or as Tennyson more delicately and eloquently put it; “In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” [Loksley Hall]), our medieval ancestors, starting with Chaucer, decided without any historical reason whatsoever that henceforth a minor Roman martyr called Valentine should be the patron of romantic love. More probably because they were so pissed off with February that they decided they had to do something to cheer things up a bit. The economic existence of card-makers, florists and chocolatiers was thus eternally secured.

A note on the “Brigid’s Cross”, pictured at the beginning of this essay: While Christians naturally claim its form and there is an appropriate legend regarding St. Brigid and this cross traditionally woven from rushes, many Wiccans also use the cross in their rituals and as decoration and claim that it precedes Christianity and that the Christian cruciform symbolism is coincidental.


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