Things have been very hectic in my house for the last week or so as we have had (very efficient) workmen in to fix our shower and give us a lovely new-look bathroom so I have got a bit behind with updating our English Traditions Home School Challenge.
1st February was St. Bridget or St. Bride’s Day. Steve Roud, of The English Year fame, tells us that ‘In Ireland, Brighid, who died around the year 525, is second only in popularity to St. Patrick’ and ‘was baptised by St. Patrick himself.’ Wikipedia makes the connection betwen her Saint Day and the pagan start of spring festival, Imbolc, both of which fall on 1st February leading some scholars to think that the Celtic goddess who shares her names was somehow imposed upon the figure of the Saint and so the goddess’ attributes became associated with St. Bridget. Whether or not this is the case a whole host of myths have been spun and miracles attributed to her over the centuries.
Helena Swan’s Girls Christian Names: Their History, Meaning and Association writes that Brigid was the daughter of a converted druid, Dubhshach, and was a pious child who ‘received the religious veil in her youth, at the hands of St. Niel, the nephew of St. Patrick’ and went on to build ‘herself a cell under a large oak tree, which came to be known as Kill-dara, signifying cell of the oak’. This was the very first step in the foundation of her Abbey at Kildare.’ Wikipedia relates several stories in which she generously gave away to the poor butter and possessions belonging to her parents which was fine in the case of the butter which was replenished through Brigid’s prayers but not so acceptable to her father whose belongings she had been doling out upon request. Her father decided to recoup his loss by selling his daughter but on the way they bumped into the King of Leinster and while he and Brigid’s dad were chatting Brigid took advantage of the pit-stop to perform another act of charity-by-proxy, giving away Dubhshach’s jewelled sword to a beggar. Presumably while Dubhshach was still gaping at the cheek of the girl the King began to praise her generosity and ‘persuaded’ her father to free her.
Steve Roud writes that ‘little’ fact is actually known about Brigid but the ‘numerous legends’ made her famous throughout Ireland and Europe. As a result:
On her day, children in Ireland would go from house to house and display an effigy or doll that represented the saint. Brighid’s Crosses, made from straw, would also be hung up to protect the house from evil in the coming year.
In England, however, celebration of Brigid seems to have been focused mostly upon dedicating churches and wells to her. Helena Swan suggests that ‘the best known of these is St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street’ and Roud tells us that the most famous of the Bridewells led to the naming of ‘a palace built between Fleet Street and the River Thames for Henry VIII (r. 1509-47), which eventually became a house of correction; the word “Bridewell” later became a generic term for a prison.’
To mark St. Brigid’s Day my daughter decided to make a peg doll like those paraded from house to house in Ireland in the Middle Ages. At the moment she is quite into making simple peg doll characters with blank craft pegs, scraps of tissue paper, fabric, ribbon and so on. Lately she has made an ice skater, a fairy princess, a bride and a medieval lady so St. Brigid has fallen happily in with them. Peg dolls are an inexpensive and absorbing activity for winter days and they can be made for almost any theme or topic from book characters, to fairies to members of your own family.
2nd of February was Candlemas, officially the commemoration of the Purificatio of the Virgin Mary after Christ’s birth and of the presentation of the Christ child at the temple at Bethlehem where he was prophesied over by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-29). Originally known as the Feast of St Mary the term ‘Candlemas’ crept in from around 1014. Roud records that:
The key element, which gives the day its popular name in English, was the preponderance of candles. These were blessed in the church and were carried in procession around the parish; they could also be seen blazing all around the building itself. This custom is based quite simply upon the idea of Christ lighting the way, shedding light on our darkness, and it is linked in particular to the words of Simeon, who held the baby Jesus and called him ‘A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of they people Israel’ (Luke 2:32).
The blessed candles were then considered to be especially lucky or magical with protective powers which persisted despite the Reformation. Other celebrations of the day back in the Middle Ages might have included tableaux of the Biblical story of the Holy Family’s visit to the temple and Roud has recorded one contemporary relic of that custom at Blidworth in Nottighamshire where the parish church, St. Mary of the Purification, holds a ‘cradle rocking’ service with a symbolic laying in a cradle of a baby boy ‘born as near as possible to the previous Christmas Day’ who is then ‘rocked by the vicar while the thanksgiving is said’. Charmingly, ‘a plaque in the church records the names of all the babies who have been so honoured since the custom was inaugurated in 1922. Many authorities state that this is a revival of an ancient practice but they offer not evidence to support the claim.’
Roud also notes that Candlemas marked the day from which candles were no longer considered necessary during the working day and was the final end of Christmas. Like so mnay other English occasions, Candlemas weather was also eagerly noted for its prefiguring of future forecasts with differing opinions as to what it might mean although ‘the most common view was that the prevailing weather of the day predicted the opposite to come.’ Roud quotes a Devonshire rhyme from as late as 1900: ‘If Candlemas day be dry and fair/ The half of the winter is to come and mair/ If Candlemas day be wet and foul/ The half of the winter is gone at yule.’
My favourite Candlemas tradition, however, is passed on by Roud from a Huntingdonshire historian C. F. Tebbut who records a local belief that on ‘Badgers’ Day’ (aka Candlemas) hibernating badgers would peep out of their setts to take a look at, of focurse, the weather. If it was sunny and the shadow of their tales were visible the badger would go back inside, presumably also believing that the weather to come would be the opposite of the Candlemas weather being enjoyed that day. Tebbut writes that, ‘There used to be a stuffed badger at the Chequers public house at Glatton, specially set up because Badgers’ Day was also the landlord’s birthday.’
On 3rd February we learned about St. Blaise’s Day. Roud tells us that Blaire ‘was believed to have been Bishop 0f Sebaste in fourth-century Armenia […] but stories of his martrydom and miracles are later inventions’ which is quite a relief because story has it that he was ‘tortured by being torn with iron combs’ and in a twist of adding-insult-to-injury-irony rather like that of the virginal St. Agnes’ association with predicting your future lover, he ‘was adopted as the patron saint of wool-combers’. Apparently woolcombers used to hold elaborate large-scale processions which Roud argues ‘presented a curious pastiche of a romanticised Bishop Blaize and characters drawn from the Greek story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, combined with local pride and national patriotism.’ The industrialistion of the woolcombing trade evebtually led to and end of the processions but some Catholic churches still remember Blaise on 3rd February, focusing on a more cheering event in his supposed hagiography: saving a boy who had a fishbone lodged in his throat. According to Roud and other sources those who suffer from throat complaints can receive a blessing from the priest who ‘holds two lighted candles, tied with a ribbon to form a cross, to the throat of the sufferer, and says a blessing along the lines of “May the Lord deliver you from the evil of the throat, and from every other harm.”‘ Roud and online sources also claim that St. Ethelreda’s Church in Holborn, still offer this blessing on 3rd February, Roud noting that this custom has lasted from 1876, but I could not find anything about it on St. Ethrelreda’s website although this isn’t surprising as the ‘News’ page hadn’t been updated since 2012! I was nearby on 3rd February visiting the Museum of London so if I had been feeling froggy I could have popped in on the off-chance, perhaps.
I feel a little bad that we haven’t managed to actually do very much to mark these later days but have really only learned a bit about them. I will try to pull my socks up! We are, however, making an English Year Calendar Tree to commemorate our year-long challenge and I will share that with you soon.