Festivals of February
Festivals of February

by Linda Kerr

February is named after the Roman goddess Februa, mother of Mars. Also known as Juno Februa and St. Febronia, she was the goddess of the passion or fever (febris) of love. (Pennick, 37) While her festivals were orgiastic rites of fertility, February was also a time for purification. This was as true in the Celtic world as it was in ancient Rome. We see remnants of the purification festivals in Candlemas, and the fertility and love rites in Valentine's Day. February was also a very important month agriculturally to country folk; thus the Imbolc lambing festivals and the weather divinations of Groundhog Day.

Candlemas is also called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, and is observed on February 2 by the Roman, Greek, and Anglican churches. It is in celebration of Mary s visit to the Temple in Jerusalem for a ritualistic purification after the birth of Jesus. (Douglas, 77) According to the Judeo-Christian rule of that time, women were required to "purify" themselves forty days after the birth of a son, or eighty days after the birth of a daughter, since females were supposed to be twice as unclean as males. (Walker, 135; Leviticus 12:2-5)

A story tells of Simeon, a holy man living in Jerusalem, who, when Mary entered the Temple, greeted her and the child Jesus, and blessed the child as "a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." (Hole, 42) The festival is called Candlemas because in symbolic reference to Simeon s words, candles are blessed in the churches on that day. (Douglas, 77)

Church historians believe that Candlemas was celebrated from very early times, since at least the fifth century, by the Christians in Jerusalem. For many years the festival was on February 14, as Jesus was supposed to have been born on the day of the Epiphany. But when it was later decided that his day of birth fell on December 25, the Feast of Purification was moved to February 2. (Douglas, 77). The Council of Trullus once tried to abolish the festival of Candlemas, claiming that Mary "suffered no pollution, and therefore needed no purification, " after giving birth to Jesus. (Walker, 135)

There is a theory that Candlemas is a Christianized form of the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia which was celebrated in mid-February. (Douglas, 77)

Lupa was the sacred She-Wolf of Roman legend, who nursed the foundling twins Romulus and Remus. Her temple harlots were lupae, sometimes called queens or high priestesses in the outlying Roman towns. The Lupercalia featured orgiastic rites to insure the year s fertility. (Walker, 556) Christina Hole tells us that after sacrifices of a dog and a goat were made "for the protection of flocks and herds, two young men of high rank ran about with thongs of goat-skin, striking all the women they met to make them fruitful." (Hole, 203) After participating in the ceremony, naked youths traveled from town to town to 'purify' them. Walker says perhaps this is why, after Lupa's festival was adopted by the Christian church, it was renamed the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin." (Walker, 556-557)

In another Roman festival, very similar to the Lupercalia, Roman pagans honored Juno Februata on February 2 as the virgin mother of Mars. She was the Goddess who engendered the 'fever' of love; the patroness of love. Christian authorities say that the pagan people went about Rome with "candles burning in worship of this woman Februa." Pope Sergius renamed the holy day as Candlemas "to undo this foul use and custom, and turn it onto God's worship and our Lady's...so that now this feast is solemnly hallowed through all Christendom." (Walker, 135)

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that Candlemas was certainly not introduced by Pope Gelasius (Pope from 492 to 496) to suppress the excess of the Lupercalia. However, a sermon exists that is supposedly by "Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700) in which he says: 'Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.' " (Douglas, 77-78)

Valentine's Day
While some of the traditions of the Lupercalia became associated with the Christian Candlemas, others attached themselves to St. Valentine's Day, on February 14; most notably the custom of choosing lovers on that day and presenting gifts to each other.

There are different theories about how the name of Valentine came to be connected with the day on which lovers send tokens to one another. One is based on the belief throughout Europe in medieval times that birds began to mate on February 14. English literature, including Chaucer, contains frequent references to the day as sacred to lovers. Another explanation is that the association grew out of the similarity between the Norman word 'galantin,' meaning a lover of women, and the name of the saint. Some think that Galantin's Day, with the 'g' often pronounced as 'v,' led to confusion in the popular mind. (Douglas, 120-121)

However, the most popular theory says that Valentine s Day actually grew out of the Roman festival Lupercalia, a festival of sexual license. The names of young men and women were written on 'biilets' -- small papers -- and put into a box, from which they were drawn by chance. In this way the people chose partners for erotic games. Churchmen denounced these early valentines as "heathens' lewd customs," and tried to substitute the names of saints for the names of the young people and put short sermons on the billets, but people soon reverted to the old love-notes. (Walker, 1037)

According to Barbara Walker, the church replaced the goddess, Juno Februata, with a mythical martyr, St. Valentine, "who was endowed with several contradictory biographies. One of them made him a handsome Roman youth, executed at the very moment when his sweetheart received his billet of love." (Walkker, 1037) In Roman Martyrology there are two martyrs named Valentine. One is a Roman priest who died in 269; the other is an Umbrian bishop who was executed in 273. Hole says it is not clear which of the two is really the lovers' saint, and that there is no historical reason why either of them should be considered such. Hole goes on to say that the death-dates of the two saints, rather than any incident in their lives, may account for the tradition: both are said to have died on February 14, the eve of the Lupercalia. (Hole, 203)

St. Valentine thus became a patron of lovers, since the festival remained dedicated to lovers in spite of all attempts to change it. Many of our modern Valentine's Day customs are directly derived from the Lupercalia festival. Douglas tells us that by drawing billets with names on them, the young men became the 'gallant' of a young woman for the next year. (Douglas, 121) If either party was unwilling to commit to the other for a period of a year, a gift could be given to help make the commitment more enticing. (Whitlock, 31) Thus young people who were paired by this method formed the habit of giving presents to each other. Later only the young man gave a gift to the girl. (Douglas, 121) Then came the custom of sending or giving a 'valentine' to a favorite person. The intent behind the valentine or billet was still clear centuries later: in 1725, H. Bourne, in The Antiquitales Vulgares, wrote of "a ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw lots which they term Valentines. The names of a select number of one sex are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that, everyone draws a name, which for the present is called their Valentine, and is also look'd upon as a good omen of their being man and wife after wards." (Hole, 204) By Victorian times, the once-sacred customs had become mere party games and frivolous means of match-making, and by the early twentieth century, were observed mainly by children.

But in centuries past, and even in its Christianized form, the Valentine s Day festival "involved secret sex worship, called 'a rite of spiritual marriage with angels in a nuptial chamber.' Ordinary human beings engaged before witnesses in an act of sexual intercourse described as the marriage of Sophia and the Redeemer. A spoken formula said, in part, 'Let the seed of light descend into thy bridal chamber, receive the bridegroom . ..open thine arms to embrace him. Behold, grace has descended upon thee.' "(Walker, 1037-1038)

St. Brigid's Day
The ancient Romans were certainly not the only ones in the pre-Christian world to have a special festival in February. Christina Hole says that Candlemas took the place of the pre-Christian Feast of Lights, which fell on February 1, when people carried blazing torches about the streets, and also the customs of the Roman Lupercalia. (Hole, 42) Hole does not tell us, unfortunately, where the Feast of Lights originated, but she does emphasize the fact that the Lupercalia is Roman; therefore, we can probably assume that the Feast of Lights was a Celtic festival.

We do know that February 1 was celebrated in the British Isles as St. Brigid's Day, or Imbolc. According to Frazer, the Scottish Highlanders represented the forthcoming revival of vegetation in spring on this day. "The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats, and dress it up in women's apparel, put it in a large basket and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briid's bed; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, 'Briid is come, Briid is welcome.' This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid's club there; which if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen." (Frazer, 155) Similar customs were also observed in the Isle of fan. "In these Manx and Highland ceremonies it is obvious that St. Bride, or St. Bridget, is an old heathen goddess of fertility, disguised in a threadbare Christian cloak. Probably she is no other than Brigit, the Celtic goddess of fire and apparently of the crops." (Frazer, 156)

Although considered a saint today, Brigit was originally the Triple Goddess, revered throughout the Celtic empire of Brigantia: parts of Spain, France, and the British Isles. Barbara Walker tells us Brigit is older than Celtic Ireland, having come with the Gaelic Celts from their original home in Galatia; one of her oldest shrines was Brigeto in Illyricum, the northwestern part of the Balkan peninsula. Brigit is said to be the same as Juno Regina, Queen of Heaven, and Tanit, the Dea Celestis (Heavenly Goddess). (Walker 117)

Dr. MacCulloch says Brigit originated in a period when the Celts worshiped goddesses rather than gods, and when knowledge of medicine, agriculture and inspiration were women's rather than men's. (Walker, 117, quoting from P.M. Campbell, 432) She is referred to in Cormac's Glossary as Brigit the female sage and Brigit the goddess, whom poets adoreded. She was a typical feminine trinity: Brigit ruled, and her two sisters governed the arts of healing and smithcraft.

The Catholic church, finding the cult of Brigit impossible to eradicate, canonized her as a saint, calling her Bridget or Bride (pronounced 'breed'). Church scholars who specialized in biographies of saints declared she was a nun who founded a convent at Kildare. The story goes that she was born of princely ancestors near Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, in 451 or 452. She received many offers of marriage when a young woman, but decided to become a nun and took the veil from St. Macaille. She lived with seven other virgins at the foot of Croghan Hill, but later moved to Druin Criadh, in the plains of Magh Life. There, under an oak, she erected what became the famous convent of Cill-Dara, or 'the church of the oak.' The city of Kildare was built there, along with a cathedral. St. Bridget founded two monastic institutions, one each for men and women, which were jointly presided over by St. Bridget and St. Conleth, bishop of Kildare. She also founded a school of art, including metalwork and illumination. She died on February 1, 525, and was buried to the right of Kildare cathedral's high altar, but her remains were later moved in the 9th century, due to Scandinavian raids, to Downpatrick, were they were buried with those of St. Patrick and St. Columba. (Douglas, 76)

Underneath the Christian trappings, however, Brigid remained more than a saint to her followers. The convent at Kildare "was noted for its heathenish miracles and evidences of fertility magic. Cows never went dry; flowers and shamrocks sprang up in Brigit s footprints; eternal spring reigned in her bower." (Walker, 117) Irish writers referred to Brigit as the Queen of Heaven, thereby identifying her with Mary. She was called "Mother of my Sovereign, Mary of the Goidels, Queen of the South, Prophetess of Christ, Mother of Jesus." (Walker, 117, quoting from W.G. Graves, 144)

Brigit was thought to be the mystic mother-bride of St. Patrick, who supposedly died as one of her sacrificial victims, and entered the underworld through her sacred grove at Derry Down. An old saying goes, "On the hill of Down, buried in one tomb, were Bridget and Patricius." (Walker, 117, quoting from Brewster, 140) This may be a reference to St. Brigit being buried next to St. Patrick at Downpatrick, or perhaps the story of the location of the remains stemmed from this old tale. At any rate, Patrick's origins and authenticity are as uncertain as Brigit's, and since his name meant 'father,' he may have been a new name for Brigit's old consort the Dagda, or 'father.' Patrick became part of Brigit's originally female trinity when it was semi-Christianized by the church as a 'Wonderworking Triad' consisting of Brigit, Patrick and Columba: the Mother, the Father, and the Holy Dove. St. Brigit's feast day was February 1, the first day of spring according to the old calendar. It was called Oimelc, Imolg, or Imbolc, the day of union between God and Goddess. (Walker, 117)

Groundhog Day
February 1, Imbolc, and February 2, Candlemas, were very important to the rural folk. Imbolc was a lambing festival, and even today in the rural British Isles, many sheep farmers arrange to begin lambing. Although it's still the middle of winter, and special care must be taken to shelter ewes and lambs, this date has two great advantages: the lambs will be just the right age to graze the spring grass, and they are well-grown and ready for market in June and July. (Whitlock, 29)

In America, Candlemas Day is known as Groundhog Day, a time for forecasting the weather for the next six weeks. This custom was brought over to America by immigrants from Great Britain and Germany. The idea is that if the groundhog, or woodchuck, comes out of his hole on this day and sees his shadow, he'll retreat back into his quarters, and there will be six more weeks of winter. But if the day is cloudy he won't return to his hole for a long sleep, as the winter weather will soon give way to spring. In Germany it was the badger which was carefully watched; in the U.S., the custom was transferred to the woodchuck.

This preoccupation with the weather on Candlemas Day may be due in part to the fact that in Britain, Candlemas was held to mark a milestone in the return of the sun. The length of the days are increasing; Katharine Briggs says that candles were lighted to strengthen the power of the sun. (Whitlock, 29) The increasing daylight led people to look beyond winter for the first signs of spring. Some of the Candlemas lore is cautionary: In the barn on Candlemas Day, should be half the straw and half the hay. In other words, in spite of the approach of spring, winter should be considered as only half over. As the day lengthens, so the cold strengthens. (Whitlock, 30)

Other rhymes concerning the weather on Candlemas Day include: If Candlemas Day be dry and fair, half the winter's to come, and mair; lf Candlemas Day be wet and foul, the half of winter s gone to Yule, and If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight; if Candlemas Day be shower and rain, Winter is gone and will not come again. A German saying is 'The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than the sun.' Douglas says that the belief that the weather on Candlemas Day forecasts by contraries the weather of the next several weeks has no connection with any religious festival or saint. (Douglas, 78)

In the early part of this century a group of men with a merry sense of humor, living in and around Quarryville, Pennsylvania, organized the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge. "On the morning of February 2 its members don silk hats and carry canes and go into the fields seeking the burrow of a woodchuck. When one finds a burrow he calls to the others and they all assemble to await the awakening of the animal from his hibernation and his emergence into the outer air. They watch his behavior and then return to the village where they interpret his actions and report them to the public. According to the records of the lodge the woodchuck's prognostications have been verified by the weather eight times, have been indefinite five times and have been wrong seven times since the observations began." (Douglas, 78-79)


Douglas, George William. The American Book of Days. 1948. The H.W. Wilson Co., New York, NY.
Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. 1922. Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, NY.
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. 1976. Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., London.
Pennick, Nigel. The Pagan Book of Days. 1992. Destiny Books, Rochester, VT.
Walker, Barbara G. The Women s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. 1983. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA.
Whitlock, Ralph, A Calendar of Country Customs. 1978. B.T. Batsford, Ltd., London.
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