Of Sunlight and Shadow

It’s the burning question everyone living in a northern clime wants to know this time each year (and if the question burned a little more, it might actually keep us warm): when will this blasted winter end? The winter of 2013-2014 has been particularly tough with the dreaded polar vortex repeatedly dipping down, bringing abnormally low temperatures further south in the northern hemisphere. I wonder – since winter came early, will spring also shift to arrive early this year, or will the white death linger on?

It’s still a question that plagues farmers today despite modern meteorological forecasting, but without such technology, how awesome this question must have been to the ancient Irish. The stars wheeling overhead were carefully watched, the progress of the sun was marked, and seeds were planted with invocations to the gods.

One American folk custom for predicting the arrival of spring that started in the 1800s among the Pennsylvania Dutch has something of a counterpart in the British Isles. One old rhyme has a familiar ring to it:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again. (Traditional)

This, of course, is the basis of Groundhog Day in North America. German pagan custom held the belief that hedgehogs would emerge from their burrows to test the weather on this day. There are no hedgehogs in North America, but the groundhog made a nice substitute.

Candlemas – a time when all the candles of the church are blessed – celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary on February 2, when she was allowed to participate again in temple rituals after the birth of Jesus. In the Jewish tradition, women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and had to wait 40 days after delivering a boy and 60 days after a girl. The feast also celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, where prophets proclaimed him to be a light unto the world.

So, what does Jewish purification rituals have to do with hedgehogs? Nothing, but like so many other pagan festivals (including Christmas), the celebration of the sun’s return in February was hijacked by the Christian Church, making Christian concepts easier for pagan audiences to understand. In Britain and Ireland, missionaries noted at this time of year the observance of Imbolc, connected to the goddess Bridgit, an ancient fertility and sun goddess. Imbolc comes from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning “in the belly,” a reference to the start of lambing season. It’s a time of year, spaced equally between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, when the lengthening of days becomes noticeable. Brigit was said to be the patroness of poets – poetry being a spark of light – and a goddess of the hearth. She was especially revered by the Laigin, the confederation of Irish tribes whose territory essentially became Leinster. In the Christian tradition, Brigit of Kildare, abbess of several monasteries, is said to have lived from about 451-525 AD. At Kildare, a vestal fire was kept perpetually burning in her honor until the Reformation. St. Brigit’s feast day is February 1.

So, back to our weather prediction: why were sunny skies at Imbolc believed to herald more brutal weeks of winter, while clouds or rain would suggest the end of it? In some aspects of the Irish pagan tradition, Brigit is considered to be a triple goddess. In spring, she is the maiden; in summer, the mother; in winter, the hag. This divine hag was thought to venture out to gather more firewood when the weather was fair at Imbolc, in preparation for more winter weather to come. If the day was cloudy or rainy, she would still be asleep and not awaken to do this chore. I suppose the same could be true for the hedgehog/groundhog: a January thaw would bring it out of hibernation too early and there would be nothing for it to eat.

In any case, I vote for long naps with a cat curled on my lap.

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