Candlemas, February 2, is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and signals the beginning of spring in the Celtic calendar. It was called Imbolc in pre-Christian times, meaning “in the belly” of the Mother because seeds were starting to germinate and the sheep were pregnant. This time was sacred to Brigit, the Earth Mother and goddess of fire, water, healing, poetry, and fertility. Other Celtic names for Brigit were Brighid, Brigid, Briid, Brid, Brede, Bride, and Bridget.
Brigit, being the goddess of fertility, was especially important to brides or would-be brides. Young girls would make straw beds for Brigit near the hearth and leave milk and cookies for her, in the hopes that she would visit for a while and bless them with fertility in the spring. The association with fertility seems to have been incorporated into Valentine’s Day, rather than into Candlemas.
Imbolc was a fire festival, celebrated with hilltop bonfires. It was also the day when people stopped using candles indoors because the days were getting longer. The fields were purified and blessed with candlelight processions, Yuletide greens were burned, and people cleaned and purified their homes. This custom lingers on as “spring cleaning.”
Brigit was transformed into the Christian St. Brigit, who supposedly was converted from Druidism by St. Patrick. She remained associated with miracles and fertility.
So how did Imbolc evolve into Candle Mass, the Christian feast of purification?
February 2 is exactly forty days after Christ’s birth on December 25. That was the time that Mary went to the Temple for the traditional purification bath after giving birth. She presented the baby Jesus at the temple, and Luke describes a meeting with an old man, Simeon, who called Jesus “a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” By the middle of the fifth century, candles were lit on this day to symbolize that Jesus Christ was the light, the truth, and the way.
Altar candles for the whole year were blessed at Candlemas. Candles distributed after the service were taken home and kept, as they were believed to have healing and protective powers.
And Groundhog Day? Imbolc was an auspicious day to forecast weather. If the day was cloudy and wintry, then winter was exhausting itself and spring could begin. The Celtic forerunners of the American groundhog were hibernating English hedgehogs.
Intrinsically, Imbolc/Candlemas is a lovely holiday. New beginnings, healing, baby lambs, light, purity, snowdrops, and crocuses. Like so many wonderful days, it was stolen by the cults, defiled, and perverted. Maybe we can remember what it was originally and reclaim a little bit of the day for ourselves.
from Survivorship Notes, Vol.2, No 1, January, 2000.