We took down the last of our Christmas decorations today, as we always do on the 6th January, or the Epiphany; it’s a tradition carried on from my own mother, who insisted almost fearfully that every last scrap of tinsel and turkey must begone by this date, or a calamitous year of bad luck would lie ahead.
I recall as a very young child the decorations coming down and then a visit to one of my mother’s friends for a cup of tea and maybe something light to eat; a cake maybe, or biscuits.
It wasn’t until much later that I recognized this as a hangover from the old Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan, or Little Christmas/Women’s Christmas, which is seeing something of a resurgence in the Republic of Ireland, and which my mother’s family may have observed as Catholics.
Nollaig na mBan (pronounced something like “Null-ag na Mon”) marks not only the end of the 12 days of Christmas, the Epiphany, and the deadline for many for the removal of Christmas frippery, but also the day when hard-working Irish wives and mothers would be granted a much-needed break after feeding their large families throughout the Christmas period. Menfolk and children would pick up the reins for this day, while their women met for a break, a breather, a natter and maybe something to eat.
I’d like to state that this was an outdated notion by the time of my childhood (1970s), but alas the tradition, if not the name of the day, was still in full force in most of the families we knew.
Coincidentally my husband prepared Sunday lunch today as I untangled the garden lights and nodding reindeers, once more retired to the garage for eleven months or so, but I’m glad to say that this was a coincidence; I no longer have to slave until the first week in January to get parity of workload around the house for a single day.
So as I boil the kettle for a refreshing cup of Punjana, I wish mammies around the world, Irish or otherwise, a happy Nollaig na mBan, while simultaneously hoping devoutly that it’s just a symbolic break for them, and that the division of labour is more enlightened in their families.
The ancient Gaelic celebration of Imbolc, or its Christian equivalent Candlemas, is observed today (the date moves around, but it’s usually on the 1st or 2nd February), halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc heralds the start of Spring, and for (Irish) Christians it marks the feast day of St Brigid. Imbolc was probably a pagan fertility festival co-opted by early Christians; indeed St Brigid herself is in all likelihood a Christianisation of a pagan goddess.
Although Imbolc seems to have been more visible in the media in recent years, Candlemas, its Christian counterpart is now mostly one of those Christian festivals that have been largely forgotten in secular Britain, along with Lammas, Whitsun, Lady Day and Michaelmas. Peter Hitchens might blame Dickens for this, inflating Christmas as he did until it filled our minds as the definitive Christian feast day, but Imbolc, probably due to its Irish association with St Brigid and wider observance in Ireland and Scotland, lives on in its Pagan-Christian half-life still.
Candlemas is the Christian Holy day that also falls on the 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas; the day commemorates the ritual purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The name derives from the candles that the congregation brings to be blessed before Mass; there is often also a procession with lighted candles. Candlemas has largely been forgotten by the non-churchgoing public in the UK, and has been largely replaced in the US by the very secular Groundhog Day which predicts the advent of spring not by a calculation between equinoxes or saints day, but by the actions of a no-doubt grumpy groundhog either seeing or not seeing a shadow on the ground. There is a faint echo here of the Christian lore that clear weather on Candlemas predicts a shorter winter.
So what of Imbolc/Candlemas in literature? When I realised that these were essentially the same tradition, I cast my mind back, as there seemed to be a negative connotation with Candlemas in my mind. Granted I was only able to recall a few instances from my reading, but all share a certain tension or risk, and all seem to hark back to a more primitive age and its fears and sorrows.
In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles, the beautiful (and doomed) Tess ends up, after her seduction and short-lived marriage-come-desertion, at the dreary and wintry Flintcombe Ash farm. She has contracted to work there for the surly and mean-spirited Farmer Groby until Lady Day, but she presents herself at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas, in readiness for the next Lady Day.
Lady Day was one of the four quarter days in the calendar, each with its own Christian holiday, when farm rents, employment contracts for servants and agricultural workers, and other such formal matters were often settled upon in a time when clocks and calendars were scarce.
Tess’s time at Flintcombe Ash is a hard and unhappy time for her, marked by surly use by Farmer Groby, and her renewed pursuit by Alec D’urberville. It contrasts sharply with her earlier employment the previous summer at Talbothays, a lush cattle farm where she also met and was wooed by Angel Clare. Although still a very young woman, the luxuriant springtime and summer of Tess’s sexuality seem shriveled to nothing but a bitter memory by the time she is at Flintcombe Ash, and the season matches this change in her life. The devilish Alec returns to stalk her at Candlemas and again in early spring, while Tess is working the heavy threshing machine. No more dreamy days milking cows in lush verdant meadows dripping with teaming life for Tess. The changes in her circumstances dating from that Candlemas and Lady Day lead directly to her end, although this is true throughout her tale. Tess’s symbolic capture on a pagan altar indicates that we should pay attention to the key dates in Tess’s calendar, and what they mean to her. The pregnant potential of Imbolc/Candlemas is no blessing to poor Tess.
Candlemas also features prominently as a date in the birth, life, and death of a less sympathetic character in literature – that half-man, half-outer being, Wilbur Whateley, the monstrous villain of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. The story opens with a quote from Charles Lamb’s “Witches and Other Night-Fears”, which is appropriate, as Wilbur’s tale is one of wizardry and terrors in the night.
Candlemas is the birthday of both Wilbur Whately and his unseen twin brother, although Lovecraft tells us that the locals of Dunwich “curiously observe (Candlemas) under another name.” Wilbur is a figure of potentially cosmic terror, and Lovecraft notes the significance of his Candlemas birth – “Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912″. May Eve is known is some parts of Europe, particularly Germany, as Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, a feast day which in Germanic folklore is believed to be the night that witches and the dead are abroad, and all evil things revel.
In Bram Stoker’s story Dracula’s Guest, the unnamed English protagonist (probably Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) is travelling to Transylvania on Walpurgisnacht and undergoes several supernatural ordeals during his journey.
Thus, a child conceived on Walpurgis Night, such as Wilbur Whately and his blasphemous twin, would be born on or about Imbolc/Candlemas. Hardly an auspicious start to life in shadow whispered Dunwich!
One last reference to Imbolc/Candlemas I can think of from pop culture is that of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day, finds himself hexed, caught in a time loop, and doomed to repeat the same day over and over until, after being driven to commit suicide several times, he re-examines his life and is able to break the spell via his love of a good woman. The theme of the (disordered) passage of time in the film ties in with the theme of spiritual and actual rebirth that marks Imbolc, although it is tinged with a warning that if we do not embrace the opportunities for new growth, we will be denied a rebirth of any kind.
I was initially surprised how dark the references are in literature to Imbolc/Candlemas, but upon reflection, there’s no disconnect. Birth and rebirth are perilous journeys, fraught with danger, and not everyone makes it out alive, or unscathed. We may be changed irrevocably when we are reborn, possibly not for the better.
Perhaps the Irish tradition of weaving a Brigid’s cross from rushes and hanging it on the kitchen wall to protect against evil and fire, a custom which continues in some Irish households to this day, harks back to a time when the heralding of new life and the coming spring were not just the idyllic respite from the darkness of winter that we envision today.