I love it when many different rituals converge on one celebratory day. Suddenly the original cloth becomes beautifully clear, and the seemingly disparate threads of tradition are woven back together. Such is the case with February 2, known as Mid-Winter in many Anglo-Saxon countries, whose individual yarns have names such as Imbolc, the Feast of Saint Brigid, Candlemas, and even Groundhog Day.
The Mid-Winter tapestry originates with the ancient Celts who worshiped Brigid (or Bride), a Celtic Goddess who was responsible for bringing back the light of Spring. Her festival day is known as Imbolc, the mid-way point between Winter and Spring. Her name derived from an older Sanskrit goddess ‘Bhairavi,’ Brigid loosely means ‘fiery arrow’ or ‘Goddess of Fire.’ She was a mother-goddess, a life-protector, a poet, a seer, the Goddess of regeneration and abundance. Imbolc itself means the flow of milk from the ewes, when signs of Spring begin their song of rebirth.
As Christianity took hold of Europe, Goddess Brigid transformed into Saint Brigid who was said to be the daughter of a Druid, had the ability to invoke miracles, and provide abundance. She was depicted as radiant sunlight, a bright, shining woman who was both a healer and weaver. Said to have perhaps lived in an all-female sanctuary attended by priestesses who kept the flame of life alive, the cross of Saint Brigid is her well-known symbol, a fiery sun-wheel turning inside a cross. On her Feast Day, festivites occur throughout Great Britain… feasting, offerings, dancing, singing, and the procession of Brigid’s cross, or circle-cross, often made from braided straw rope.
The Mid-Winter festival was to undergo one more transformation: When Catholicism took root, it converted this day (actually one day later, February 2) to the Feast of St. Mary. In Jerusalem, 40 days after giving birth to the Christ child, Mary entered a temple in Jerusalem where Christ was recognized as the Heavenly light come to remove the darkness. Renamed Candlemas, candles were – and are to this day – lit in church to remember the return of the light in the form of Christ.
Which brings us to Groundhog Day. It too marks the day of Mid-Winter; if the groundhog sees his shadow, we have 6 more weeks of Winter ahead; if not, Spring is on its way. Not as glamorous as Imbolc or Candlemas, no lighting of candles or feasting or processions with flames and crosses, but a noting of the turn of the seasons nonetheless. And this year, as seems to always be the case, he didn’t see his shadow. Alas, despite little snow, we’ve got a while before those crocuses peek their sleepy heads above ground.
So on February 2, 2012, the biggest question of the day was…where does one actually go to celebrate Imbolc/Feast of St. Brigid/Candlemas/Groundhog Day? I thought surely, living just outside Boston, with the heavy Irish and Catholic influences, there would be some wonderful ritual awaiting. Alas, a quick search on Google meant we’d have to drive to New York City or catch a flight to Dublin. Or wait a few days for the weekend. But we were ready to celebrate, and it was HER day after all. So we piled into the minivan and did what we do best on a cold early February day…sat ourselves at a fabulous local Irish pub, complete with a genuine Irish-speaking bartender, ordered some mussels and cockels and an Irish whiskey, and toasted to the light that was already promising its return. Slainte!