“Candlemas” is the Christianized name for the holiday, of
course. The older Pagan names were Imbolc and Oimelc. Imbolc means, literally,
“in the belly” (of the Mother). For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden from
our mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings. The seed
that was planted in her womb at the solstice is quickening and the new year
grows. Oimelc means “milk of ewes”, for it is also lambing season.
The holiday is also called “Brigit’s Day”, in honor of the
great Irish Goddess Brigit. At her shrine, the ancient Irish capitol of
Kildare, a group of nineteen priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual
flame burning in her honor. She was considered a Goddess of fire, patroness of
smithcraft, poetry, and healing (especially the healing touch of midwifery).
This tripartite symbolism was occasionally expressed by saying that Brigit had
two sisters, also named Brigit. (Incidentally, another form of the name Brigit
is Bride, and it is thus she bestows her special patronage on any woman about
to be married or handfasted, the woman being called “bride” in her honor.)
The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the
Great Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead. Henceforth,
she would be ‘Saint’ Brigit, patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing.
They ‘explained’ this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was ‘really’ an
early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she
performed there ‘misled’ the common people into believing that she was a
Goddess. For some reason, the Irish swallowed this. (There is no limit to what
the Irish imagination can convince itself of. For example, they also came to
believe that Brigit was the ‘foster mother’ of Jesus, giving no thought to the
implausibility of Jesus having spent his boyhood in
Brigit’s holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of
sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of
the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted on the
beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their special holiday. The Roman Church
was quick to confiscate this symbolism as well, using “Candlemas” as the day to
bless all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year.
(Catholics will be reminded that the following day,
The Catholic Church, never one to refrain from piling
holiday upon holiday, also called it the Feast of the Purification of the
Blessed Virgin Mary. (It is surprising how many of the old Pagan holidays were
converted to Maryan feasts.) The symbol of the purification may seem a little
obscure to modern readers, but it has to do with the old custom of “churching
women”. It was believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving
birth. And since Mary gave birth at the winter solstice, she wouldn’t be
purified until February 2. In Pagan symbolism, this might be retranslated as
when the Great Mother once again becomes the young Maiden Goddess.
Today, this holiday is chiefly connected to weather lore.
Even our American folk calendar keeps the tradition of “Groundhog Day”, a day
to predict the coming weather, telling us that if the groundhog sees his
shadow, there will be “six more weeks” of bad weather (i.e., until the next Old
Holiday, Lady Day). This custom is ancient. An old British rhyme tells us that
“if Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”.
Actually, all of the cross-quarter days can be used as inverse weather
predictors, whereas the quarter days are used as direct weather predictors.
Like the other High Holidays or Great Sabbats of the
Witches’ year, Candlemas is sometimes celebrated on its alternate date,
astrologically determined by the sun reaching fifteen degrees Aquarius, or
Candlemas Old Style. Incidentally, some modern Pagan groups have recently begun
calling the holiday itself ‘Brigit’, presumably as shorthand for “Brigit’s
Day”. This lexical laziness is lamentable since it confuses a Deity name for
the proper name of the holiday. The same disconcerting trend can be seen in the
recent practice of referring to the autumnal equinox as ‘Mabon’, which is more
properly the name of a Welsh God-form.
Another holiday that gets mixed up in this is Valentine’s
Day. Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph makes this quite clear by noting that the
old-timers used to celebrate Groundhog Day on February 14. This same
displacement is evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well. Their habit
of celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 7, with a similar postdated shift
in the six-week period that follows it, puts the Feast of the Purification of
Mary on February 14. It is amazing to think that the same confusion and lateral
displacement of one of the old folk holidays can be seen from the Russian
steppes to the Ozark hills, but such seems to be the case!
Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic scholars
that the very name of “Valentine” has Pagan origins. It seems that it was
customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a g as a v.
Consequently, the original term may have been the French “galantine”, which
yields the English word “gallant”. The word originally refers to a dashing
young man known for his “affaires d’amour”, a true galaunt. The usual
associations of V(G)alantine’s Day make much more sense in this light than
their vague connection to a legendary ‘St. Valentine’ can produce. Indeed, the
church has always found it rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint’s
connection to the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love.
For modern Witches, Candlemas O.S. may then be seen as the
Pagan version of Valentine’s Day, with a de-emphasis of hearts and flowers and
an appropriate reemphasis of Pagan carnal frivolity. This also realigns the
holiday with the ancient Roman Lupercalia, a fertility festival held at this
time, in which the priests of Pan ran through the streets of
One of the nicest folk customs still practiced in many
countries, and especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts of the
U.S., is to place a lighted candle in each and every window of the house (or at
least the windows that face the street), beginning at sundown on Candlemas Eve
(February 1), allowing them to continue burning until sunrise. Make sure that
such candles are well seated against tipping and guarded from nearby curtains,
etc. What a cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak, and dreary night to see
house after house with candlelit windows! And, of course, if you are your
coven’s chandler, or if you just happen to like making candles, Candlemas Day
is the day for doing it. Some covens hold candle-making parties and try to make
and bless all the candles they’ll be using for the whole year on this day.
Other customs of the holiday include weaving “Brigit’s crosses” from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection, performing rites of spiritual cleansing and purification, making “Brigit’s beds” to ensure fertility of mind and spirit (and body, if desired), and making “crowns of light” (i.e., of candles) for the high priestess to wear for the Candlemas Circle, similar to those worn on St. Lucy’s Day in Scandinavian countries. All in all, this Pagan Festival of Lights, sacred to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and poetic of the year.
Document Copyright © 1986, 1995, 2005 by Mike Nichols. This document can be re-published only as long as no information is lost or changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or used without cost to others. Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike Nichols. Revised: Tuesday, May 3, 2005 c.e. Please click here to go to Mike Nichols home page.