February can tend to be a dark and gloomy month in the UK. However if you look carefully, you will notice the first green signs of Spring returning.
This is the month when Mother Nature restores herself after the dark cold winter. Snowdrops are usually the first to show their faces, soon followed by Spring crocuses, wild primroses, lesser celadine and sweet violets, reminding us that Spring and Summer will return.
February 1st/2nd is the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc which celebrates the growing light after the Suns rebirth at Yule. It is the time of year that the goddess changes from Crone to Maiden and is associated with the Celtic Goddess Brighid/ Bride, the goddess of inspiration, healing, poetry and smithcraft. Brighid was worshipped long before Christianity. In Ireland people would make up a Brides bed near the hearth on Imbolc eve. Bride was often symbolized by a sheaf of corn decorated with ribbons and bright pieces of material by the women of the family.
The women would pour a libation of milk or water onto the earth and make a wish or prayer to Brighid. The men would join them later on, with garlands of greenery wound round their heads, they would pay a small fee, a coin, flowers or even a kiss to the lady of the house so that they could join them by the hearth and ask Brighid for help with their work throughout the coming year.
A simple way of celebrating Imbolc is to light candles for a few minutes in each room of your home at sunset to honour the Sun's return.
Some areas celebrate this time of year with a well dressing or blessing. Although the origins of this have been lost, some say that it developed from a Pagan custom of making a sacrifice to the gods of wells and springs to ensure a continued supply of fresh water throughout the year, before being adopted by the Christian church. Generally this is a summer activity in many areas, although some villages and towns still hold this event at the beginning of Spring.
Pancake day, Shrove Tuesday is the traditional Christian feast day before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. It's likely that it orignates from a pagan tradition. The ancient Slavs believed they had to help the god of Spring, vegetation and fertility, Jarilo, to fight against the god of the cold dark winter and part of their week long celebrations included making and eating pancakes which symbolized the Sun. They believed that eating the pancakes would increase Jarilo's influence so that he would win the fight.
Pancake races are also held today in many towns and villages. Legend tells of a housewife who was cooking pancakes when she heard the church bells chime. Afraid of being late she ran to church still clutching the frying pan, complete with pancake.
Shrove Tuesday ball games date back centuries. They are still played in some areas of the UK. They are more of a free-for-all than a game of football and can include several hundred players. The rules and area of play depend on the town or village where they are held.
The songs of the mating birds remind us of another Spring custom, Valentines day, the festival of love and romance which is said by some to originate from the Roman festival of Lupercalia on Febraury 15th which was held partly in honour of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome and also as a fertility festival. Valentines cards became popular in Victorian times, when they would contain personalised hand written messages and verses, pressed flowers and signed anonymously. Today, like so many other customs Valentines day has become a huge commercial business, but sadly I feel the personal touch has been lost.