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The Old Ways: Candlemas

by Doug and Sandy Kopf

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Contemplate the Sun in early February. The days are growing slightly longer. The Sun is waxing in His power, but you will not become truly aware of His strength until after Spring Equinox. On the Earth, the Sun's new warmth is beginning to melt the snow in the mountains. The rivers and streams are filling with the Waters of Life. The dormant seeds are warmed by the Sun and nourished by Mother Earth, even though they may still be hidden under a blanket of snow. They begin to germinate and grow but, depending on where you live, may not become visible for many weeks.

This is a time of hope and expectation. It represents new life, purification and new beginnings. Our ancestors rejoiced at the first indications that the promises of Yule would soon be fulfilled. Today, Imbolc is often seen as a time for Dedications and Initiations: rituals of new beginning. Many groups celebrate Imbolc as a Festival of Lights. White or pale blue candles may be lit during the ritual and taken home to burn later, when a magickal new beginning is needed. This is a good time to make a personal rededication to the Craft and to the Goddess, reaffirming vows or making new ones.

This is also the time to invoke the Maiden by all Her Many Names. All of the Maidens have in common the aspects of youth and virginity. They represent the freshness of the new season, as the warming Sun and melting snows reawaken the Earth to life. It can be very effective to fill a Cauldron with dry ice, then melt it by pouring warm wine from the Chalice onto it. Use the melted liquid to bless magickal items such as tools and crystals.

This festival has many names. It was celebrated among the Celts as Imbolc (meaning 'in the belly' and pronounced 'Immel') or Oimelc ('ewe-milk'), among the Greeks as Antihestria, the Festival of Flowers and among the Romans as the Feast of Juno Februata, the Virgin Mother of Mars. The month of February takes its name from this Goddess and the following month, March, takes it's name from Her Son. The Antihestria gives us the lovely custom of wearing crowns of flowers for this holiday. The custom in Greece was to place a flower crown on any child who had reached the age of three during the past year. It was also the time for tasting (and giving gifts of) the new wine.

Candlemas, another name for the festival , was originated by the Christian Church. Roman Pagans held candlelight processions in honor of Juno, thus offending the Patriarchal Christians. When they refused to stop, Pope Sergius tried to turn the festival to a form of Christian worship by renaming the holy day and declaring it a celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. He wrote, "Undo this foul use and custom and turn it to God's worship and our Lady's... so that now this feast will be considered solemnly hallowed through all Christendom." Old custom held that a woman was "unclean" for forty days after childbirth and this holiday fell forty days after the date chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (The Church later tried to abolish the Candlemas celebration, declaring that Mary could not be rendered unclean by giving birth to the Son of God and thereby needed no purification, but the attempt was unsuccessful.) Many modern Witches have adopted the name Candlemas to their own use (turnabout's fair play!) because it is prettier, easier to pronounce and easier to spell than names like Imbolc and Oimelc.

February 2nd is celebrated in Scotland and Ireland as the Feast of St. Bride (in the Highlands, February 13th). Bride (or Brigid) was canonized by the Church when they were unable to banish Her from the hearts of the people. The accepted date of the celebration is also the one fixed by the Church. The actual date usually falls somewhere around the fifth of the month. It can be determined by using the dates of the Solstice and the Equinox, then finding the mid-point. This is the first actual day of Spring. Contrary to popular belief in the mundane world, the Spring Equinox in March is mid-spring, rather than the beginning!

In Ireland, the day may be celebrated by the filling of a basket with soft grass and flower petals to make a "Bride's Bed." An image, or "corn dolly", known as a brideo'g, is then created and laid in the bed. When the bed has been made ready, the women open the door and invite the Goddess to enter. They say, "Bride is welcome! Bride is come! " In some areas, the brideo'g is left near the hearth overnight. A wand, usually a rowan or birch branch, is placed in the bed with the image, in hopes the Goddess, Herself, will make Her presence known during the night. In the morning, if marks from the wand are found in the ashes of the fire, it is considered a good omen. At least one group in our area carries out this practice. It is a moving ritual, well worth trying. While you are making the brideo'g, use this chant:

Brigid, You of many names,

We become Your living flames!

Light the candles, sing Her praise.

As was done in elder days,

Light the candles, Sing Her Praise!

(by Pat Devin)

The customs in Wales also involved candles. One of them is a very practical one. Sometime in autumn, the oldest woman in a household ceremoniously presented a lighted candle to a younger woman, for use in the outhouses. On February 2nd, the young woman returned a lit candle to the giver. It was considered that artificial light was no longer necessary after Canhwyllau (Candlemas). Another custom required the lighting of two candles on either side of a chair. Each family member would then sit in the chair and take a drink from a horn goblet. The vessel was then tossed backwards, over the head. If it landed upright, it signified a long life for the person who threw it. An early death was in store, if it landed bottom up,.

The rowan tree, also known as the quickbeam, bears several connections to Imbolc. In the Sacred Tree Alphabet, rowan is the second tree, luis. The corresponding month begins January 21 and ends February 17, placing the festival in the middle of the rowan month. This is the festival of the "quickening" of the Earth, and the rowan is known as the Quickening Tree, or the Tree of Life. The bonfires lit in honor of Brigid traditionally contained rowan wood. (The Gaelic word "luisiu" means "flame.") The magickal red berries of the rowan tree are said to contain sustenance equal to that of nine meals, to heal the wounded and to add a year to the life of a human who partakes of them. Therefore, this time of the reawakening of the Earth to life bears a logical association with the rowan, the Flame of Life.

Our ancestors predicted the weather according to the conditions on Candlemas day, as is shown in the following nursery rhyme from the Middle Ages:

If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.

This has survived into modern times. In the United States, February 2nd is commemorated as "Groundhog Day." On this day, it is said, the groundhog (notably, Puxatawnee Phil) comes out from his winter sleep. If he sees his shadow (i.e., the day is sunny), he will run back into his hole, and winter will continue for six more weeks. If he is not frightened by his shadow (the day is overcast and cloudy) he will remain outside and winter is done! Of course, our British and European ancestors had never seen a groundhog. The little burrowing animal, sacred to Brigid and seen as a weather predictor, was a hedgehog. When the first settlers arrived on this continent and found no hedgehogs, they adopted the groundhog to fill his place.

The groundhog (or hedgehog) custom may, actually relate to something much older: the worship of serpents. It is sometimes said that, early on Bride's Morn, the serpent comes out of the hole. There is an old hymn, of which only one verse has been found:

Early on Bride's Morn,
The serpent shall come from the hole, I will not molest the serpent, Nor will the serpent molest me.

However, the words vary according to area and one version is:

On the day of Bride of the white hills, The noble Queen will come from the knoll, I will not molest the noble Queen, Nor will the noble Queen molest me.

The comparison of the two verses could indicate that, in some early era, the festival that we celebrate at Imbolc was dedicated to a Serpent Goddess.

So, now we know that flower crowns, lighted candles, rituals of new beginnings and Groundhog Day are all customs rooted in The Old Ways. Bride is Welcome! Bride is Come!

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