Saturday, February 03, 2007

Latha Fhèill Brìghde, The Beginning of Celtic Spring

Entry for Feb 3, 2007:

In the old Celtic calendar, the last day of January and the first day of February was a fire and healing festival called Imbolc, sacred to the Brigid, the goddess of poetry, healing, and fire/blacksmiths. In the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, this festival is also known as Latha Fhèill Brìghde. This festival marks the beginning of Spring (in the same way that the 31st of October and the 1st of November celebrates the transition from Autumn to Winter). In Ireland, 31 Jan is St. Brigid’s Eve, a Time of Transition when it is customary to put out bowls of milk for the faeries (i.e., cats). Here in Scotland, St. Brigid is called St. Bride, presumably after the Irish Gaelic Bride.

Since I was a teenager, I have felt a special affinity for St. Brigid. For one thing, her feast-day marks the beginning of Spring, which in California meant that the almond trees in our back garden were soon to blossom, white flowers with delicate pink centers, raining down to the ground like snow. For another, she is the Christianized marker for the old Celtic Triple Goddess, Brigid. (World mythology is full of triple goddesses: maiden, mother, crone; the three Fates, etc.) It appears likely that there was an historical Brigid also, who was an early follow of St. Patrick, but presumably she was named after the Triple Goddess, and so made a handy replacement. So that makes 1 Feb a special day for the recognizing the Goddess aspect of the Divine. For years, I have marked St. Brigid’s Eve by phoning my mom, a Wise Woman and my personal expert on things to do with the Goddess. (This year was an exception, since I had had a long Skype session with her a couple days earlier and could not raise her on AIM.) And when I do phone her, my mom usually reminds me that the beginning of February also marks the cross-quarter day, that is, the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.

By one of those strange, synchronistic circumstances, Hyndland’s Scottish Episcopal Church, just 5 minutes walk from our new flat, is St. Bride’s. I checked their website for an indication of a service to mark their patron saint’s feast day, but found nothing, so instead we went to a lovely, small Celtic Connections concert of music from Ayrshire, at the Universal Folk Club, on Sauchiehall Lane. Three local singers from different parts of Ayrshire took turns singing songs in fairly broad Scots; we loved it! Diane talked to the woman singer, named Heather, for awhile, during which we were asked if we sang. It turns out that folk music here is not a spectator sport! So that was how we passed St. Brigid’s Eve this year. I think a Celtic Connections concert is a very good way to mark this time of turning!

The first of February is also my brother Conal’s birthday, and it felt good to drop him an email, a tentative feeler after a painful interaction last March after our dad died, to which he responded graciously and genuinely. This also is a good day to remember our families Irish heritage, since Conal is named after the fictional name given to our great-grandfather, William Mullen, in the books our grandmother wrote about her father. (This is an example of what our grandmother referred to as “the fictional treatment”, i.e., dressing up real facts in more fitting presentations to make them sound more real.) And it has been very good this year, here in Glasgow, to remember the Irish heritage in our family, which comes via our mother, is at least as strong as the Scottish, which comes from my father’s side and is carried also in the name Elliott. (The Elliotts were a bloody-minded lot of Borders reivers, whom mom hopes to sort in some way when she visits in a few weeks.) So I too carry the Scots-Irish, Protestant-Catholic split that is part of the historic and continuing pain of Glasgow and indeed Scotland, and St. Brigid/St. Bride’s day is a good time to recognize this duality.

Americans mark this festival every year without every realizing it, when they celebrate Groundhog’s Day on the 2nd of February. Groundhog’s Day makes the beginning of Celtic Spring into a tridium, a three-day holiday. A groundhog (also known as a woodchuck) is a large North American ground squirrel, a type of marmot. In Celtic Britain, the festival of St. Brigid was also a time for weather divination, when people looked for omens to indicate what kind of Spring was coming, so they looked for bears, badgers or marmots to come out of their dens. (I’m not making up the business about the badgers!) By one of those paradoxical reversals, a sunny day was taken as a bad omen. Living in Scotland, however, it is easy to imagine the critter being frightened not by the shadow itself but by how long it was, leading to it realize that the sun was still much too low in the south for any decent creature to stirring about this early in the year!

The 2nd of February is also Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas, in which candles are lit to celebrate the presentation of Jesus to Temple. When we lit candles for Candlemas last Sunday at St. Mary’s, I had no idea that we were participating in the Imbolc/ St. Brigid-Bride/ fire-healing festival, associated with this seasonal turning that I have been fascinated by for the past 40 years of my life. In Christian terms, this tridium resonates with and foreshadows the Great Tridium of Holy week: Maundy Thursday – Good Friday – Easter.

At a deeper level, in the end, it seems quite clear to me that Groundhog’s Day is also about whether we are living by the Roman calendar, in which spring does not begin until the Vernal Equinox (signalling Easter), another 6 weeks away, or by the Celtic calendar, in which Spring begins right now. I have always preferred to believe that Spring begins on the first of February, on my brother Conal’s birthday, the time when the pace by which each day grows longer and lighter than the last picks up and begins to rush toward the long Scottish Light is summer.

St. Brigid’s Eve + Day + Candlemas
= Latha Fhèill Brìghde
= Lousadzak, proposed Scottish-Armenian Festival of the Coming of the Light (see entry for January 10 2007).


Kenneth said...

I was interested by your description of the candle-lighting ceremony, because I've been learning about the symbolism of fire in several different ancient civilizations. Hagiwara-sensei described fire as a symbol of life when we were talking about Ibsen's "A Doll's House," and this also ties into the winter celebration that's common among just about every European and Asian culture (Christmas, New Year's, etc.) Another interesting thing is that the ancient Persians worshipped fire, especially after Darius adopted the light-god Ahuramazda as their official deity. Also, we've been reading about staring in a fire as a form of greco-roman divination; there was a theory that all fire was a reflection of the Great Fire, the sun, and as such one could tell especially the weather by looking at a small flame.

Just thought it was interesting!

Ann said...

Hi Robert,
Inspired by your blog on St Bride I have written something on The Triple Spiral Symbol of the Goddess. See