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Asterisks appear next to saintsí names - see Celebrating Saints

February 1 Imbolc
An ancient Celtic festival considered the first day of spring. According to Blackburn, no information survives about the rituals associated with this festival, except that ewes were milked. Various scholars have derived the word Imbolc from Ol-melc (ewe's milk) because the ewes are lactating at this time, Im-bolg (around the belly) in honor of the swelling belly of the earth goddess, and folcaim (I wash) because of the rites of purification which took place at this time. All of these meanings capture themes of the festival.

A medieval quatrain fills in a few more sketchy details:

Tasting every food in order
This is what behoves at Imbolc
Washing of hand and feet and head
It is thus I say

Much of the lore associated with Imbolc was probably absorbed into the customs surrounding St. Brigid's feast day on February 1.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

February 1 St Brigid

The dandelion lights its spark
Lest Brigid find the wayside dark.
And Brother Wind comes rollicking
For joy that she has brought the spring.
Young lambs and little furry folk
Seek shelter underneath her cloak.
W. M. Letts

February 1st is the feast day of St Brigid, who began her life as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian saint. The great high goddess, Bride or Brigid, was a fire and fertility goddess, perhaps embodied in the stars in the constellation we view as Orion. In her temple at Kildare, her priestesses tended an eternal flame. She presided over all transformations: birth and brewing, metal-smithing and poetry, the passage from winter to spring.

In Celtic lore, she is the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, who marries her to Bres of the Fomors. Her name may be derived from Gaelic breo aigit or fiery arrow or (the Matthews prefer) a Sanskrit derivation Brahti or high one. As Bride, the Queen of Heaven, she seems to have been a sun goddess. In one tale, St Brigid carries a burning coal in her apron. In another tale, flames engulf her body without burning her.

The legends about the goddess Brigid gradually became associated with the (somewhat spurious) Saint Brigid who founded the first convent in Ireland (where else?) at Kildare. Her emblem is a cow and many legends tell of how Brigid kept guests at her abbey supplied (often miraculously) with milk and butter. Her flower is the dandelion, whose yellow flower is the color of butter and whose stem when broken releases a milky sap. St Brigid supposedly helped at the birth of Jesus, thus she is the patron saint of midwives and pregnant women. She is also the patron of poets, scholars, healers, dairymaids and blacksmiths, recalling many of the arts under the protection of the goddess Bride.

Maypole DanceSt Brigid

On the eve of her feast day in Ireland, people put out a loaf of bread on the windowsill for the Saint and an ear of corn for her white cow, offerings for the grain goddess like the loaf buried in the first furrow. Wheat stalks are woven into X-shaped crosses to be hung from rafters as charms to protect homes from fire and lightning.

In Ireland, the birds known as oyster-catchers (in Gaelic they are called Gille righde, the servants of Bride) appear on St Brigid's day and are said to bring spring with them. And traditional lore says: As long as the sunbeam comes in on Bridget’s feast-day, the snow ends before May-day.

During the 19th century, Alexander Carmichael collected and compiled folk customs from the West Highlands, including many revolving around Bridget. On her holiday, women get together to make Brigid's crosses at night. They also dress the corn doll or last sheaf (from Lammas or autumn equinox) in a bridal gown and put her in a basket which is called the Bride's bed. A wand, candle or other phallic object is laid across her and the Bride is invited to come for her bed is ready. If the blankets are rumpled in the morning, this is seen as a good omen. Obviously the goddess whose mating brings life to the land is not the abbess of a convent but the great fertility goddess.

Albert, Susan Wittig, China Bayles’ Book of Days, Berkley Prime Crime 2006
Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens,
Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Carmichael, Alexander,
Carmina Gadelica, Llindisfarne Press
Kightly, Charles,
The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
Matthews, John & Caitlin,
Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Element 2000

Patricia Banker of Saints Preserved offers more information plus two lovely visual versions of Brigid: Brigid the Goddess and St. Brigid — at her website: www.saintspreserved.com/brigid.htm

February 1 Juno Sospita
In ancient Rome, consuls made a sacrifice to Juno Sospita (the Saviour) on this day. Girls offered barley-cakes to the sacred snake in her grove. If their offerings were accepted, their virginity was confirmed and the year's fertility assured.

One of my readers, Christine, informed me that the cave where offerings were made is in Lanuvio, which is about 40 km from Rome. The name Lanuvio is thought to be derived from "The Goddess covered in wool (lana)."

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

February 1 St Tryphon
His emblem is the pruning knife and he is known as a protector of vines and fields and a killer of rats and caterpillars. On his day, vineyards and fields are sprinkled with holy water and blessed. Working in the fields is not allowed, and it is said that one man who disobeyed this injunction and went out to work cut his own nose off.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

February 1 Candlemas Eve
This is the official last day of the Christmas season and also the last date for taking down the Christmas greens. Leaving them up after Candlemas is bad luck.

Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve

Down with the Rosemary and Bayes
Down with the Mistletoe
Instead of Holly, now upraise
The greener Box (for Show).

The Holly hitherto did sway
Let Box now domineer;
Until the dancing Easter-day
Or Easters Eve appear.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

February 2 Ground Hog Day
In England and Germany, the animal that comes out of hibernation on this day is the badger. In America, this role is assigned to the groundhog (or woodchuck), a relatively solitary, burrowing animal.

Bruce Stutz in his book on Spring explains why the groundhog hibernates and the role light plays in waking him up. As the temperature drops in late fall and the hours of sunlight decline, the groundhog's body starts producing more melatonin which make him sleepy and less interested in sex. He crawls into his burrow where his body temperature drops to near freezing and his heart rate slows from 75 to 4 beats per minute. Some time in spring, the pineal gland (which produces melatonin) turns off and the groundhog wakes up, his testosterone rising. Stutz says think of the groundhog "as a sex god promising fertility." He rises from his burrow, looking for signs that winter is over and female groundhogs.

Legend says that if the groundhog sees his shadow, he goes back in and winter continues. If he doesn't see his shadow, then winter will soon be over. This custom seems to reflect the early understanding of this day as the turning point between winter and spring. The association of this day with divination, particularly weather divination is also ancient (see Candlemas, Feb 2).

An ancient Irish poem (the only source I have found for this poem is Kightly) refers to the snake emerging from the hole, at the same time the Queen (Bride) emerges from the Mound (the place of burial, Winter). (I wonder if this snake is related to the sacred snake of Juno (see Feb 1)). Again, the sense is awakening after hibernation, rebirth after death, the Spring Maiden replacing the Cailleach of Winter.

This is the day of Bride,
The Queen will come from the Mound.
This is the day of Bride,
The serpent will come from the hole.

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Stutz, Bruce,
Chasing Spring, Scribner 2006 [Stutz also provides a hilarious account of the activities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where Punxsutawney Phil is the weather oracle.]
Yoder, Don,
Groundhog Day, Stackpole Books 2003 [This is an even more thorough description of the events that take place in Pennsylvania including songs.]

February 2 Candlemas/Purification/Presentation/Our Lady of Candelaria
Jewish women went through a purification ceremony 40 days after the birth of a male child (80 days after the birth of a female child) and brought a lamb to the temple to be sacrificed. According to Mosaic law, Mary and Joseph would also have brought their first-born son to the temple forty days after his birth to offer him to God, like all first-born sons, along with a pair of turtledoves.

The Presentation was originally celebrated in Jerusalem on November 21st but once Christ's birth was fixed on December 25th (near the winter solstice), the Presentation and Purification rituals would fall forty days later, in early February when torches were carried around the fields.

First celebrated on February 14th, in 350 at Jerusalem, when it would have coincided with the Roman festival of Lupercalia, it was later moved up to February 2nd. Pope Sergius declared it should be celebrated with processions and candles, to commemorate Simeon's description of the child Jesus as a light to lighten the Gentiles. Candles blessed on this day were used as a protection from evil.

This is the ostensible reason given for the Catholic custom of bringing candles to church to be blessed by the priest on February 2nd, thus the name Candle-Mass. The candles are then taken home where they serve as talismans and protections from all sorts of disasters, much like Brigid's crosses. In Hungary, according to Dorothy Spicer, February 2nd is called Blessing of the Candle of the Happy Woman. In Poland, it is called Mother of God who Saves Us From Thunder.

Actually this festival has long been associated with fire. Spicer writes that in ancient Armenia, this was the date of Cvarntarach, a pagan spring festival in honor of Mihr, the God of fire. Originally, fires were built in his honor in open places and a lantern was lit which burned in the temple throughout the year. When Armenia became Christian, the fires were built in church courtyards instead. People danced about the flames, jumped over them and carried home embers to kindle their own fires from the sacred flames.

The motif of fire also shows up in candle processions honoring St Agatha (Feb 5) and the legends of St Brigid (Feb 1). The fire represents the spark of new life, like the seeds blessed in northern Europe on St Blaise's Day (Feb 3) and carried home to "kindle" the existing seed.

The English have many rhymes which prognosticate about future weather based on the weather on Candlemas Day:

If Candlemas Day bring snow and rain
Winter is gone and won't come again
If Candlemas Day be clear and bright
Winter will have another flight.

These are all similar to the American custom of predicting the weather on Groundhog Day, in that you don't want the groundhog to see his shadow. In Germany, they say that the shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable than the sun on Candlemas Day.

The ancient Armenians used the wind to predict the weather for the coming year by watching the smoke drifting up from the bonfires lit in honor of Mihr. The Scots also observed the wind on Candlemas as recorded in this rhyme:

If this night's wind blow south
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish in the sea;
If north, much cold and snow there will be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man, woman and brute.

This was also a holiday for Millers when windmills stand idle. In Crete it is said that they won't turn even if the miller tries to start them.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Kightly, Charles,
The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys,
The Book of Festivals, The Woman's Press 1937


February 3 St Blaise
I vividly remember St Blaise's Day from a Catholic childhood for on this day we went into the dim church and knelt at the Communion rail while the priest came up to each of us and held a pair of crossed white candles against our throat, to ward off disease. St Blaise is the patron of throat diseases since he once saved a child from choking. He was also a Bishop in Armenia in the early 4th century.

Like St Nicholas, St Blaise appears to be one of those saints who accumulated the legends and lores of earlier deities and folk customs around his name, perhaps because his name, sounds like wheat (ble) in French or crops (biade) in Italian.

In medieval times, he was the patron saint of plowmen. On his holiday, women brought a pail of seeds to the church to be blessed. Half of the seed was left as an offering to the church, the other half taken home and mixed with the regular seed before plowing (like the Armenians bringing home embers from the sacred fires of Mihr--see Candlemas, Feb 2).

St Blaise was also the patron saint of shepherds and the woolen industry because he was allegedly martyred on the stone table used for combing out wool and flayed with the prickly metal combs that remove tiny stones from the wool. As with other saints who suffered peculiar forms of martyrdom (for instance, see Agatha, Feb 5), the connection with sheep probably came first. Both St Bridget (Feb 1) and St Agnes (Jan 21) are also associated with sheep and this is the time of the year when lambs are being born.

In another interesting connection with this month (and the holiday of Lupercalia, Feb 15), Blaise is invoked against wolves since he supposedly forced a wolf to return a pig he had snatched from a poor widow. (See St Vlasios, Feb 11.)

The LaPlante sisters recommend the following ritual, adapted from the Catholic throat-blessing ceremony, to be used whenever you are in need of healing. Bake (or purchase) two long skinny loaves of bread (or use two candles). Light another candle, preferably beeswax. Cross the two loaves (or candles) at your throat and say this prayer:

Saint Blaise
Pray for me
[Command that this obstruction
Go up or go down]
Deliver me from illnesses of the throat
And every other evil.

Then eat the bread and drink a cup of tea (sweetened with honey) while the candle burns.

Carol Field says that the feast day of San Biagio is especially celebrated in Italian towns where wool was worked. One of the most elaborate ceremonies takes place in Taranta Peligna, a small community in Abruzzo, where the townspeople work communally to make hundreds of special breads called panicelle in the shape of a four-fingered hand. The fingers are said to represent the collaboration of dyers, spinners, weavers and finishers The breads are baked on February 1st, but distributed on Feb 3rd, the official holiday, at the church at the same time the priest is blessing the throats of the faithful.

In Lombardy, people eat a slice of panettone on St Blaise's day to protect against sore throats during the year. In Serra San Bruno in Calabria, the cookie for San Biagio is called an abbacolo and is baked in the form of a question mark or bishop's scepter. The young men of the town offer them to their sweethearts. If the girl breaks the piece in two and gives part back to the boy, keeping the other for herself, it means she will marry him. Sicilians serve tiny white breads shaped like grasshoppers and called panuzzi or cavadduzzi or miliddi, thus honoring the saint who rid Sicily of an infestation of grasshoppers.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Field, Carol,
Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
LaPlante, Alice & Clare,
Heaven Help Us: the Worrier's Guide to the Patron Saints, Dell 1999

February 3 Carnival Sunday
In Italy, the most recently married couple of the neighborhood scoops out the first trowel of earth and plant scarli, poles big as trees, twined with garlands of heather and juniper. At the end of Carnival, the banner at the top is burned.

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990

February 3: Theogama
One of the dark-moon, women-only festivals of the Greeks. This festival, celebrated on the 26th day of the Greek month of Gamelion, was also known as the Gamelia, and was sacred to the marriage of Zeus and Hera.

February 4 Setsubun
This Japanese holiday marks the official end of winter, and is the last remnant of the old Japanese festival calendar, before it was Westernized and New Year's Day moved to January 1st. The name means "season-boundary."

On this last day of the year, the male head of the household went around the house scattering roasted soybeans, one for each year in the life of each family member. Meanwhile his family chants Fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto! "In with good luck, out with demons!"

In public ceremonies, celebrities throw beans off balconies of shrines and other important buildings. They are trying to hit the demons and all the misfortunes they represent.
Why beans? Perhaps, suggests Rufus, because the word mame means both bean and good health. An ancient Japanese health charm is to eat a roasted soybean for every year of your age.

Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

February 4 Collop Monday/Rose Monday
A last chance to eat meat (chops, or collops) before the fasting of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday. In Mainz, this was called Rose Monday.

St Blaise
St Blaise

February 5 St Agatha
St Agatha is a third century Sicilian martyr. Like St Agnes, she was a lovely, noble and wealthy young girl, who was martyred for her refusal to marry. She had attracted the attention of a powerful man, Quintanus, the king (or consul) of Sicily, who subjected her to terrible tortures when she spurned him. Perhaps the worse, certainly the most gruesome: her breasts were torn off. She was also put into a brothel, raped, racked, beaten, torn with iron hooks, burnt with torches and imprisoned without food or water She finally expired after being rolled over live coals and broken potsherds.

The picture of St Agatha in my copy of Lives of the Saints shows her surrounded by symbolic objects--a bell, a brazier of smoking coals and a pair of iron tongs (perhaps those used to rip off her breasts) - with Mount Etna (looking very much like a breast) smoking in the background. Early Christian icons showed Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate. Later they were mistaken for bells and she became the patron saint of bell founders. She is also the patroness of nurses, the protector of valleys and is invoked for protection from breast diseases and fire. In Italy, special pastries or nougats, shaped like breasts and called St. Agatha's breasts, are eaten on her feast day.

Her feast day is February 5th but the festivities in Catania, the center of her worship begin on February 1st. It is celebrated with poetry contests, fireworks, music, confetti and processions. Wooden structures called candelore which are shaped like bell-towers are carried through the streets. When they stop, muskets are fired and the men who carry the candelore perform the annacata, a dance in which each one waves his candle about trying to make it burn out first. St Agatha's veil, which was taken from her tomb and is preserved at Catania, is said to help prevent eruptions of Mount Etna

The many associations of St Agatha with fire and embers resonate with other early February observances. The Celtic St Brigid, whose feast day is on February 1st, is also associated with fire (and as Bride, the Queen of Heaven, she seems to have been a sun goddess). In Armenia, the fire god Mihr was honored at this time of year and embers carried back from the central bonfire to each family's hearth.

Agatha's name comes from a Greek word, agathos, meaning good, which was the epithet of many Greek divinities, including the agathos daimon (the good spirit of the household) and Agatha Tyche (good fortune).

Perhaps Agatha's predecessor was a fertility goddess whose prominently-breasted figure was carried about the fields during sowing time. Berger in The Goddess Obscured describes the importance of such customs at this time of the year when the fields are plowed in preparation for sowing. Some scholars have noted parallels between the festival of the Ship of Isis celebrated in Egypt around March 5th and the worship of St Agatha in Catania. The Isis festival, described by Apuleius, included a torch-lit procession with worshippers carrying an image of the goddess. One of the priests carried a golden vessel shaped like a breast from which milk poured to the ground.

In Spain she was represented as an old woman, stuffing winter into her sack, possibly a carryover from Befana of Italy (see Jan 6). She was said to live in cemeteries and was associated with cats and death.

Apuleius, Lucius, The Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, translated by Robert Graves, Penguin 1950
Fitzgerald, Waverly, "Speculations on Spurious Virgin Martyrs,"
The Beltane Papers, Issue One, Beltane 92
Orloff, Alexander,
Carnival: Myth & Cult, Perlinger 1981
Root, Waverley,
Foods of Italy, Vintage 1997
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys,
The Book of Festivals, The Woman's Press 1937

February 5 Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras
In some parts of the world Carnival begins on November 11th. In other places it starts the week before Ash Wednesday. For the members of the Samba schools of Rio de Janeiro and the Crewes of New Orleans, the planning begins as soon as this year's Carnival has finished.

Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the final day of the celebration. The whole time of Carnival is a time of riotous activity, when there are no holds barred on behavior. Masked balls gave people an opportunity to disguise themselves and act out fantasies. The name Carnival derives from carne vale, "good-bye to meat," as devout Catholics abstained from eating any rich foods during the six weeks of Lent.

Shrove Tuesday is usually marked by the consumption of rich, fatty foods and especially meats. Each part of France has its own special dish: pigs’ trotters in Champagne, pigs’ ears in Ardeche, a leg of goat in Touraine. It's also customary to serve various rich, deep-fried pastries and cakes including pancakes, fritters, waffles, eclairs, doughnuts and cream puffs. In Venice, the pastry of the day is galani, egg dough fritters, made with white wine, eaten cold and powdered with sugar. In Russia, the special food of the day is the blini, which is served with butter, caviar, sour cream and other rich toppings.

Carol Field describes a variety of Carnival celebrations in Italy. One of the wildest is celebrated in Ivrea which imports a trainload of blood oranges from Sicily for wild battles in the Piazza which leave the combatants bruised and dripping, while the gutters run with the red juice. In previous centuries, the items thrown included confetti (sugared almonds), candles, beans, caramels and coriander seeds rolled in plaster or flour and left to dry. Some of these make sense—the beans, for instance, recall the Roman feast of Parentalia when black beans were thrown to propitiate the ancestors—while the candles evoke the candles of Candlemas. Nowadays shaving cream is sprayed everywhere leaving everyone and everything covered in white foam.

Masked balls are part of Carnival celebrations in many places, but particularly in Venice and Germany. Pam Mandel, in her amusing chronicles of a winter spent in Austria, describes a sort of fancy debutante ball but in earlier times, the anonymity of masks and costumes allowed people to engage in licentious behavior that would normally be censured. Fasching is the name used in Germany and Austria for the masked figures, both grotesque and beautiful, that roam the street in search of food. Storace writes that in Greece, carnival provides an opportunity for free speech and uncensored social commentary. Costumes are used in this way, for instance to mock the pretensions of authorities. They also provide an opportunity for transvestism, not just sexual, but social, an opportunity to reveal what is normally hidden.

Celebrations of Carnival reached their height in Italy in the middle ages, especially in Venice. In 1214, in Venice, Carnival was celebrated with a sort of mock battle in which 12 noble ladies held a fortress which was attacked by assailants throwing flowers, perfumes and spices. Goethe attending a carnival celebration in Rome in 1787 wrote a beautiful passage about the effects of the candlelight processions of Shrove Tuesday which Carol Field quotes in her book on celebrations in Italy:

The darkness has descended into the narrow, high-walled street before lights are seen moving in the windows and on the stands; in next to no time the fire has circulated far and wide, and the whole street is lit up by burning candles.

The balconies are decorated with transparent paper lanterns, everyone holds his candle, all the windows, all the stands are illuminated, and it is a pleasure to look into the interiors of the carriages, which often have small crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, while in others the ladies sit with coloured candles in their hands as if inviting one to admire their beauty.

Sia ammazzato chi non porta moccolo. 'Death to anyone who is not carrying a candle.' This is what you say to others, while at the same time you try to blow out their candles….

Orloff's description of Carnival customs still observed in Telfs in the Tyrolean Alps gives us a glimpse of some of the ancient aspects of this festival. At dawn, a baker, an innkeeper, a chimney sweep, and a peasant carry a golden sun on a pole through the village, begging the sun to shine down on the carnival. Later the Wilden appear, men and boys in grotesque masks and costumes of moss, representing winter. They roam the streets, drunk and riotous, attacking anyone who crosses them. There is a simulated bear hunt, then another procession headed by a lantern bearer whose role is to search for carnival in the darkness of winter. He makes room for the Schleicher, the spirits of spring. Each wears a fantastic hat, a mask showing the face of a young person and a giant bell. Each carries in his right hand a stick stacked with pretzels (symbols of the sun) and in his left a linen handkerchief. The Schleicher do a magic circle dance, with slow, deliberate steps, their bells awaken the slumbering earth. This is followed by a mock tribunal (making fun of local politics and gossip) and the squirting of the crowd with water from the mouth of the carnival baby.

In Finland, Shrove Tuesday or Laskiainen is a time for outdoor parties. Everybody lends a hand to build a toboggan slide, and children as well as adults take part in the fun. Lanterns and candles are hung in surrounding trees and afterwards everybody comes back into the house for pea soup and almond-filled Lenten buns for dessert.

Bulgarian carnival celebrations feature masked dancers known as koukeri or startsi (which means old man). They dance at dawn in groups of seven or nine and perform comic scenes from every day life. They are often accompanied by other characters such as a bride, a king or an Arab. In parts of eastern Thrace they dress in women's clothing; in the Strandza mountains they dance on stilts. In some places they dance around a mast topped with a basket of straw which is ignited on the first day of Lent.

Like Groundhog’s Day, Shrove Tuesday is day for weather prognostication for the Pennyslvania Dutch who predict the height of the flax by the length of the icicles on Shrove Tuesday.

Bulgarian customs: http://www.eliznik.org.uk/Bulgaria/history/bulgaria_customs.htm
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1980
Mandel, Pam, "Attack of the Jelly Donut," http://nerdseyeview.tripod.com/austrianwinter
Orloff, Alexander, Carnival: Myth & Cult, Perlinger 1981
Root, Waverley, The Food of Italy, Vintage 1992
Storace, Patricia, Dinner with Persephone, Pantheon 1996
Yoder, Don, Groundhog’s Day, Staackpole Books 2003

Feb 6: St Dorothy
This virgin martyr of the third century is the patron of gardeners and is usually shown with a laden basket because she was on her way to her place of execution, when a lawyer, Theophilus, jokingly suggested she send him a basket of heavenly fruits and flowers whereupon a child appeared with a basket of apples and roses. This convinced Theophilus who converted and also suffered martyrdom.

An excellent day to begin working in your garden, turning the soil or ordering seeds.

Hoever, Reverend Hugo, Lives of the Saints, Catholic Book Publishing Company 1955

February 6 New Moon in Aquarius, Solar Eclipse
The eclipse of the sun will be visible in New Zealand, southeastern Australia, Vanuatu, Fiji and Western Samoa.

This new moon is the eve of Chinese New Years. In the Jewish calendar this is the start of the first month of Adar (there are two this year since it’s a leap year). In the Greek calendar, it’s the month of Anthesterion, whose name comes from the same word as "flowering." For more information on Anthesteria, see:

February 6 Eve of Chinese New Year
On the day before New Year, the Chinese prepare the feast for the next day. A new picture of the Kitchen God is put up and an offering set before it of a bowl of freshly made rice ("New Year rice') containing assorted dried nuts.

Feasts are set out for the household gods, then the ancestors on "The Table of Heaven and Earth," a long table usually set up in the courtyard. In front of a yellow paper with representations of all the heavenly sages and deities, people set out "honey offerings:" apples, dried fruits, breads, vegetables and New Year cakes. Hanging above the table are figures of the Eight Immortals threaded together with vines decorated with paper pomegranate flowers.

On New Year's Eve, people dress up and visit relatives and friends "bidding fareweel to the old year." Newly married men are expected to go the house of their wife's parents; not doing so will bring bad luck.

Everyone stays up, sipping on wine and nibbling on refreshments, to see out the old year. Candles are lit and women and children play cards and throw dice.

During the double-hours (last of the old year and first of the new), people burn incense and set off firecrackers constantly to greet the spirits who descend to earth (some say they ward off "mountain stenches" and evil spirits). In earlier times, before gunpowder, sections of bamboo were thrown into the fire and they would explode with a loud sound, so according to Li-Ch'en who was writing in 1900, firecrackers were still sometimes called "bursting bamboos."

After this noisy spectacle, everyone visits friends and relatives to wish them good luck in the coming year; this is called wishing New Year Happiness. But when first going out of the house, one should bid welcome to the God of Joy and bow to him. When people do go to sleep, they sleep in their clothes (to be ready for the new year?).

Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Li-Ch'en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

February 7 Chinese New Year
The observation of this lunar festival (which occurs on the second new moon following the winter solstice) begins two weeks ahead of time (during the waning moon) as people pay debts, clean homes, return borrowed items, and make offerings to the household gods. Children are given little red envelopes containing money. Tangerines are also gifts of good luck. Firecrackers and lion dances scare off evil spirits.

People give each other special flowers called "hall flowers" because they have been reared in artificial heat (like forced narcissi): peonies, plum, peach and kumpquat blossoms and jasmine. In earlier times, shallot, onion and madder plants were sprouted by the same method. People also put up lucky talismans—lucky words cut out in red paper, sometimes more than a foot long, which are pasted up on the front of gates. Pictures of the Eight Immortals are also cut out and hung up in front of divinities. (These are very much like the paper cuts that appear on Days of the Dead in Mexico and at Shavuot in Jewish synagogues).

Another New Year's custom is the Money Tree: pine and cypress branches placed in a vase, and decorated with old coins and paper pomegranates and flowers. Old coins (with holes in them) are strung on colored threads in the shape of dragon and put at the foot of children's beds. This is called "cash to pass the year." It is supposed to be saved and not spent. However, money is given as a gift, usually in red envelopes.

New Year's Day is sometimes called The Day of Beginning or the Day of Three Beginnings (of the year, of the season and of the month). On New Year's Day, the aristocrats and officials of the Palace received purses from the Emperor embroidered with the eight treasures: the Wheel of the Law, Conch-shell, Umbrella, Canopy, Lotus, Jar, Fish and the Mystic Knot.

The meal is the most important part of the ceremonies, as each dish has symbolic significance. All the food is prepared ahead of time, as no frying or baking are permitted on the holiday. Knives and cutting instruments are put away as well. No one sweeps since that would sweep away good fortune.

The traditional main dish was a whole roasted pig, and at least one pork dish is still traditional. Chicken equals prosperity, a whole fish signifying the beginning and the end of the cycle is served but never eaten to symbolize plenty. Saifun (bean threads) represent long life and tangerines, piled high in a pyramid, are good luck and happiness. Expensive food items like sharks' fin, bird's nest and sea cucumbers set a tone of luxury. Clams are served to indicate receptivity to good fortune; vegetables are carved into the shape of coins.

Dumplings are popular: sometimes filled with meat and vegetables--and sometimes just vegetables as many families observe the practice of not eating meat on New Year's Day. Deep fried to a golden color they are said to resemble bars of gold. Sometimes they contain a coin or other token inside the dumplings to bring good luck to the recipient.

In ancient China, the festival lasted two weeks, until the Festival of the Lanterns on the full moon. Today the festivities go on for three days.

According to the writings of a sage from the fourth or fifth century, the ten days beginning with Chinese New Year are named after animals and plants. The first day is Fowl Day. The following days honor the Dog, the Pig, the Sheep, Cattle, Humans and Grains. Very much as the Twelve Days of Christmas predict weather for the coming year in British folklore, the weather on the these days predicts the coming year for each of these creatures. Bright clear days indicate prosperity while dark days warn of trouble.

Year of the Rat begins!

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Li-Ch'en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936
Simonds, Nina, Chinese Seasons, Houghton Mifflin 1986

Feb 8: Needle Memorial
In Japan, in a ritual that goes back 1500 years, women dress in kimonos and take the sewing needles that have broken in the previous year to the local Buddhist shrine where a three-tiered altar has been set up. The lower tier displays sewing accessories: scissors, thimbles, thread, etc. The top tier holds offerings of seasonal fruit and white mochi. On the center tier is a vast slab of tofu into which the broken needles are plunged. Priests sing sutras to comfort the needles, heal their broken spirits and thank them for work well done. No sewing takes place on this day.

I love this notion of honoring the inanimate objects in our lives for the service they have provided and think we should set aside days like this for automobiles, computers, refrigerators, pens, toothbrushes, combs, zippers … the possibilities are endless. Not everything can be soothed by tofu but wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to see a parking lot full of broken computers being blessed by a priest?

Rufus, Anneli, The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

Feb 8 God of Wealth
On the second day after the new year, the Chinese honor the God of Wealth by setting off firecrackers all day long. Each of the nine days which follows Chinese new year, an aspect of life is honored in this order: Dog Day, Pig Day, Sheep Day, Cattle Day, Horse Day, Human Day, Grain Day, Hemp Day, Pulse [peas and beans are members of the pulse family] Day.

Li-Ch'en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

St Agatha
St Agatha

Feb 9: St Apollonia
Another third century martyr, Apollonia was a deaconess whose teeth were knocked out during the tortures which led to her death, thus she is invoked against toothache and her symbol is a forceps gripping a tooth.

The LaPlante sisters offer several rituals to help alleviate toothache.

1) Write "Dear Saint Apollonia, intercede on my behalf" on three pieces of paper. Carry them in your pocket for 24 hours, then burn them.
2) Recite this prayer: "Dear Saint Apollonia, healer of toothaches, take away my suffering."
3) Buy (or make) a replica of a tooth and hang it around your neck for a day.

Perhaps a day to schedule a visit to your dentist or buy yourself a new toothbrush.

LaPlante, Alice & Clare, Heaven Help Us: the Worrier's Guide to the Patron Saints, Dell 1999

February 10 Burgbrennen
In Luxembourg, on the first Sunday of Lent, fires are lit on the hills at dusk, thus the name, burning of the Burg (derived from the Latin comburere,"to burn"). According to one source, the burning of the Lenten fire symbolized the triumph of the sun over winter, while the Easter fire represented the rebirth of nature, the St John's fire heralded the summer solstice and the St. Martin's fire stood for the fading away of autumn (thus we see Christian dates assigned to the fires of the Celtic quarter days).

In earlier times, the burning of the fires was a time of both exuberant celebration and prayers for the successful growth of the harvest. Now it's a time when young boys go from house to house, begging for straw and wood and sticks, which they take to the top of a nearby hill. A big pole with a wooden cross is wrapped in straw, stuck into the earth and the combustibles heaped around it. Sometimes a wheel is put on top of the pole and covered with rags soaked in oil, thus creating a Catherine wheel effect when lit. The most recently married man lights the fire.


Feb 11: St Gobnait
An Irish saint whose name is cognate with "smith," perhaps another aspect or companion of Brigid. The occupation of blacksmith has always been a magical one, perhaps because of the smith's powers over metal and fire.

Feb 11: St Vlasios
The Orthodox celebrate St Blaise's day on this day. If you are Greek and have to work on this day, you should first sew a cloth bag behind your back and get someone to ask you what you are sewing. The proper reply is: "I am sewing stone and whetstone. I am sewing up the wolf's jaw." I find intriguing the mention of the whetstone (which I associate with Brigid (Feb 1) and her patronage of metalcraft) and the wolf (see Lupercalia, Feb 15th).

The Slavonic god of farm animals is called Vlas or Volos and is definitely lurking behind the guise of St Vlasios. In Slavic areas, it is traditional to eat goat or mutton (from animals slaughtered in front of the church) and wheat cooked in butter and honey. In Aetolia, women are not supposed to carry firewood and Vlasios Cattlestrangler will drown any beasts of burden that are carrying loads on this day.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999

Feb 11: The day the birds begin to sing
In tenth and eleventh century England, people celebrated the festival of St Radegund on this day, which was also considered the day the birds first began to sing. For more on St Radegund see Feb 28.

Berger, Pamela, The Goddess Obscured, Beacon Press 1985

February 11 Clean Monday
In Greece, the first Monday of Lent is called Clean Monday. Athenians spend the day outside, flying kites and picnicking, much like the Persian holiday Thirteenth Outside.

The first meal of Lent consists of fish salads like taramosalata, a special kind of flat bread studded with sesame seeds and served only on this day of the year, and lots of wine.

Storace, Patricia, Dinner with Persephone, Pantheon 1996

Feb 12: St Julian the Hospitaller
An apochryphal saint whose legend became very popular in the Middle Ages. The story goes that he was a nobleman who accidentally killed both of his parents. To expiate his crime he went to live by the ford of a river where he established a hospice for poor people and helped travellers. One day he and his wife gave aid to a man almost dead of cold who disappeared in a blaze of glory, announcing that Jesus Christ had accepted his penance. He became the patron of ferrymen, innkeepers and circus people; many hospitals and charitable institutions were named after him.

Attwater, Donald, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, Penguin 1965

February 12 Breaking the Five
The fifth day of the first lunar month is called Breaking the Five in China. As in other midwinter holiday customs, people were supposed to stay home and not work, so no fresh rice could be cooked (all the special holiday foods were prepared ahead of time) and women did not leave their homes. But on the sixth day (January 27), the royal women dressed up and visited each other. Newly married women went home to visit their parents. And merchants began to open their shops again for business.

Li-Ch'en, Tun, translated by Derk Bodde, Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, Peking: Henri Vetch 1936

Feb 13: Parentalia
An eight-day Roman festival, honoring dead ancestors. All temples were closed, no marriages took place and government officials did not wear their robes in public. People visited the graves of their parents and other relatives, bringing offerings of milk, wine, honey, oil and spring water. Some brought sacrificial blood from bodies of black animals. They decorated the graves with roses and violets and ate a ritual meal at the gravesite. As both greeting and farewell, they spoke the words, Salve, sancte parens, "Hail, holy ancestor."

The Vestal Virgins performed their own rites on this day, honoring their sacred ancestor with a visit to the group's parental shrine, that of the early Vestal, Terpeia.

Rufus, Anneli,
The World Holiday Book, Harper San Francisco 1994

Feb 14: Valentine's Day
There is no connection between this holiday and either of the two St Valentines (a Roman priest martyred in the third century and a martyred bishop) although many legends have been invented to explain it. One story says that Claudius II during a time of unpopular military campaigns cancelled all marriages and engagements, hoping thereby to channel the energy of the young men into the martial arts. Supposedly Valentine, a priest in Rome during this time, secretly married couples, thus incurring the wrath of the emperor and martyrdom.

The custom of sending valentines may derive from the custom of drawing lots (names of partners) at the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia or with the worship of Juno Februata in whose honor on the eve of her feastday (Feb 15), according to my Lives of the Saints, boys drew names of girls. St Francis de Sales trying to abolish this heathen practice in the mid-sixteenth century suggested drawing the names of the saints (with boys drawing the names of female saints, and vice versa). This does not seem to have caught on. According to Hutton, the custom of sending valentines began in England in the 15th century, and was more popular at first among the middle classes, who sent signed valentines (not anonymous ones). In Japan it is now the custom for women to give chocolates to men on this day, particularly their superiors at work.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that birds chose their mates on this day. This was the time of year when the courtship flights of birds, particularly of members of the crow family, were visible. I find it amusing that the Backyard Bird Count sponsored by Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Audubon is scheduled on Presidents Day weekend, usually close to Valentine's Day.

In honor of the marriage of the birds, Mrs. Sharp (an alter ego of Sarah Ban Breathnach), sets out treats for the birds on this day: peanut butter balls rolled in bird seed, raisins and chopped nuts, chilled in the freezer and hung in a netted produce bag.

There was a folk superstition, mentioned by Shakespeare that the first person you meet on Valentine's Day will be your true love. Ophelia plays with this idea when she says to Hamlet

Good morrow, 'tis St Valentine's Day
All in the morn betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your valentine.

To dream of your future mate, pin five bay leaves to your pillow on the eve of St. Valentine's (one in each corner and one in the middle). Or you can adopt the divination method used by young people in England: write the names of prospective lovers on slips of paper, roll them in clay balls and drop them in a bowl of water. The first to rise to the surface will be your valentine. Or you can adopt the ritual suggested by the LaPlante sisters: Write the names of prospective lovers on pieces of paper, put them into a container, then draw one out and say: "Thou art my love and I am thine, I draw ______ for my Valentine." The lover you chose will be yours by the following year.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Breathnach, Sarah Ban,
Mrs Sharp's Traditions, Simon & Schuster 1990
Hoever, Reverend Hugo,
Lives of the Saints, Catholic Publishing Company 1955
Hutton, Ronald,
The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Oxford University Press 1994
Kightly, Charles,
The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
LaPlante, Alice & Clare,
Heaven Help Us: the Worrier's Guide to the Patron Saints, Dell 1999

Patricia Banker of Saints Preserved provides additional information on St. Valentine at her web site plus some interesting links, including one to a series of Victorian valentines: www.saintspreserved.com/Valentine/Valentine.htm

February 14 Trifon Zarezan
Bulgarians celebrate the patron saint of vineyards (on either this day or the 17 of February) by pouring out a libation of red wine on the earth, ceremonially pruning vine shoots, electing a Vine-king and dancing in masks. I haven't been able to find anything about this saint in my various saints books but the ceremonies in his honor incorporate elements from the Thracian cult of Dionysus.


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