Celebrating February: The month of every-kind-of-weather…and holiday!
Some of the best days of the year to be on the Oregon coast are during the month of February—and some of the worst. Historically, the weekend of Lincoln’s birthday has been snowy and the weekend of Washington’s birthday has been wonderfully warm and sunny—the first (and last!) real sunshine for months in the Pacific Northwest. Who knows what “global climate change” will bring us this year?
February is also a weird mixture of holidays: February 2nd is a major Celtic celebration, then, the next day (this year) is the Lunar New Year, which is celebrated all over Asia and in Asian-American communities, then 10 days later we honor the man who freed the African slaves and kept the Union together, then just 2 days later, we celebrate “national hearts and flowers day” and the Italian bishop who taught us all to tell people we love them. Finally, barely over a week later, we take a day off in honor of the man whose personal integrity kept us a republic, rather than a democratic monarchy. Whew! Fortunately, this year we don’t have to add in Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday—and that’s all in the shortest month of the year!
Imbolc is the name of that Celtic celebration… It runs from sundown Feb 1 – Feb 2. Imbolc means “in milk” and celebrates the mid-point of winter, when the earth is covered in milky-white snow and the lambs and cows begin to have babies and give forth milk. For the people of northern Europe, that meant that, after weeks of living off stored foods, there was finally some fresh milk and cheese. It’s also the time, in Celtic countries, when contracts are made or ended and “temporary” marriages may be ended or begun. (Yes, the short-term “live-in” relationship is really quite old!). The greens brought in to the house for Solstice are replaced and refreshed, often with hardy herbs. Gifts made for the community during the long dark nights are brought forth to share. White clothing is worn to symbolize both the milk and the purity of the maiden-phase of the Goddess, called the Virgin, for this is her celebration, too.
When the Roman Empire became Christian, the Roman bishops sent teachers and healers into the northern European states to bring those people into the new universal church (which is what the word “catholic” means). They were told by St. Augustine not to force the people into the new faith, nor to tear down the people’s old faith, but to adapt what the people believed and adopt their practices into the new, Christian faith.
So it was that the virgin phase of the “triple goddess” of the Celtic tradition was replaced by the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The white for purity remained. Candles replaced the small fires, and a new story of how Mary carried a candle for her purification at the temple following Jesus’ birth was woven into the tradition. A woman who became a great teacher in the Celtic lands, whose name was that of the goddess, Brigit, was canonized, and the day was declared her saint day. Churches with sacred altars were built near, or even on top of, the ancient sacred sites, and so the traditional processions continued, only now to celebrate Communion with the Christ.
The Roman church figured out that if Mary had a baby at the end of December she’d have to go to the temple to be “purified” 40 days later, at the beginning of February. So, in their usual fashion, they adopted and adapted the ancient Imbolc festival and honored the Virgin Mother of Christ instead of the virgin goddess. Later, they added a new character to the Christmas story, a midwife named Brigit who also held the candle for her in her purification (sadly, there is no record of such a name in use there then).
In Celtic countries Imbolc honored the feminine aspect of the divine as she emerged in all her purity out of the apparent “death” of winter. In Ireland, the goddess’ name was Brigid, which is not pronounced at all like it’s spelled. In Celtic, gi is more like “yee,” so it sounds to us like they’re saying “Briyeed” or, in modern English “Bride.” (Hence the white dresses and emphasis on virginity at weddings—the woman being married is the
“Brigid” for the day!)
The Roman church, attempting to bring the Irish into the Roman fold, chose to name the day St. Brigid’s (or Brigit’s or Bride’s) Day. A wonderful “life of the saint” was put together from legends of the goddess and powerful healers named after her. The one point of those stories which seems to be based in fact is that, following St. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish, a woman named Brigit founded a convent in Clara, County Offaly. Then, around 470, she founded Kildare Abbey, a double monastery, for nuns and monks, on the plains of Cill-Dara, “the church of the oak”, her cell being made under a large oak tree (which would have been sacred to the Druids at the time, so she may not have been all that Christian, after all!). In any case, as Abbess of this monastery she wielded considerable power across the land, and some stories suggest she even functioned as a bishop.
Today, people honor her in many ways, the most famous if which is taking their palm leaf from last year’s Palm Sunday and tying it into a Celtic cross shape—as a sign of peace for the coming year.
May the gentle peace of the Bride fill all our hearts all year!