'The Snowdrop, in purest white array, First rears her head on Candlemas day'
|Snowdrops and Violets by Eva Francis (c) Rochdale Arts and Heritage Service; Supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation|
Today is Candlemas, inextricably tied up with snowdrops in my head - one of my favourite flowers. There were often called Candlemas Lilies or Candlemas Bells in days gone by.
Many is the year that we've had snowdrops before Christmas even - often in colder times than this mild, wet winter has been. I can't say that my snowdrops 'reared their heads' today, but they are only just really starting to come out. I've always loved the way they flower even when snow is on the ground, they look too delicate for such cold. I suppose that's why the French call them Perce-Neige.
|Snowdrops by Jennifer Johnson|
But there is more to Candlemas than snowdrops, pretty as they are. It is a great marker in the year, significant because it says that Christmas is long gone and we have moved on, the year is already past its infancy. This day has been celebrated for thousands of years, and was also known as the Festival of Lights, the name coming from Roman times when Ceres (or Demeter in Greek) is supposed to have searched for her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) by the light of hundreds of candles. Proserpine had been abducted by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and needless to say, Ceres could not find her anywhere on earth. In rage, she brought life to a standstill: fruit, flowers and crops stopped growing, and a desert appeared wherever Ceres set her foot in the vain search for her daughter. Eventually, divine intervention was called for, and to cut a long story short, Proserpine - after eating 6 pomegranate seeds - was allowed to return to earth for six months of every year, her return symbolising the cycle of death, rebirth and regeneration.
|Snowdrops by Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
The Celts knew this same festival as Imbolc, a name that derives from the word for milk, as this was the time that lambs were born and milk returned to the menu. As with the Romans and Greeks, this was also the festival of the Maiden Goddess, who in Ireland was Brighid, the Goddess of fire, poetry and healing. This was a time to bless agricultural implements and livestock and turn towards hopes of fertility in the year to come. For this same reason, in the north of England, Candlemas used to be called The Wives Feast Day because it was regarded as a fertility festival.
The Emperor Justinian wrapped all these traditions up neatly (as was the wont in the Christian church) and from the ancient festival created the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that candles were thereafter lighted to her - hence the name Candlemas(s); and at some stage the Celtic Goddess Brighid became St Bridget, and the old tradition of making corn dollies turned into Bridget's Crosses, which are still made today - Irish school children being shown how to bend and weave the rushes every year.
|St Bridget's Cross woven from rushes|
And the little white flowers that are so tied up with Candlemas? It is thought that monks brought the first snowdrop bulbs to western Europe from Turkey, and grew them in monastery gardens, placing the delicate flowers on the altar at Candlemas.
But there are other, more ancient myths about these Fair Maids of February, as snowdrops were also called. It is said that after being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve wept desperately as endless snow fell, covering the earth, removing all trace of colour and life. But an angel took pity on her, caught a snowflake in his hand and breathed on it. As it fell to earth, it became the first snowdrop. In Germany, there is a different tale. They say that when God made the earth, he told the snow to ask the flowers for some colour, but every flower refused - except for the snowdrop, which is why snow is white.
|Snowdrops by Jennifer Mackenzie|
Rather more mundanely, in some parts of the world, today is also known as Groundhog Day. Somehow it loses some of its magic at this point, but I have read that this was another Imbolc tradition. It refers to a kind of marmot in the USA, but here perhaps it was a hedgehog. Seemingly, the creature emerged from hibernation on this day, and if it saw its shadow, that meant six more weeks of bad weather. But there was one way to try and get around this eventuality - you could place a candle in your window on Imbolc Eve, representing the Eternal Flame of the Maiden Goddess. Back to candles again.
A friend has recently bought an old farmhouse in Wales. Recently an elderly couple came to the door - he had known the place since childhood, as it belonged to his grandmother. When his own daughter was young, he told my friend, she came running to her parents, whispering that she had found 'little secrets'. They followed her outside and discovered that she was talking about snowdrops, blooming in the nearby copse that is carpeted with them to this day. For such a tiny flower, this jewel of the winter has some lovely names, and 'Little Secrets' is another one.
|Snowdrops at Millvale on a Frosty Morning by Cora Harrington|
Thou first-born of the year's delight,
Pride of the dewy glade,
In vernal green and virgin white,
Thy vestal robes, array'd
John Keble's verse about snowdrops from his book:
The Christian Year, 1827