Being a glass-half-full type, I always welcome the winter solstice as the overture to spring, my favourite season.
But January and February always disappoint, with February’s only redeeming feature its brevity.
Despite the longer daylight hours, the skies are often so overcast that it never seems to get properly light all day. What light there is feels wintry, and the spring equinox, when day and night reach equal length, seems a long way off.
I take comfort in discovering that in Celtic tradition, spring officially starts at the beginning of February, with the festival of Imbolc halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Imbolc translates as “in the belly”, alluding to the stomachs of pregnant ewes and the promise of the imminent renewal of life.
1st February is also the Feast of St Brigid, Irish patron saint of fire, poetry and healing. Brigid was originally a Celtic goddess with such a strong following that the first Christians in Ireland canonised her to keep the locals on side. Brigid’s traditional symbol, a cross woven from green rushes, was often nailed over the doors of homes to ward off evil spirits. It had nothing to do with the cross of Jesus, but its existence may have made it easier for the Christians to adopt Brigid as their own.
The ancient Romans celebrated a different feast in the middle of the month. Februa, a day of atonement and purification, was so important that they named the whole month after it. In the Roman calendar, February was the twelfth month, so Februa will have prompted a spiritual and physical declutter to help Romans start the new year in good shape.
Wondering why we adopted February for our own calendar, when it’s named after a Roman festival I’d never heard of, I discover other contenders. The Old English called it Sol-monath, meaning “mud month”, appropriate for the season’s weather. In medieval times, it was known as Kale-monath, or “cabbage month”. Perhaps as winter stores ran low, cabbage formed the bulk of peasants’ diet.
I prefer the Venerable Bede’s idea. In his treatise De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time), the Anglo-Saxon theologian suggests that “Sol” is another word for a particular type of cake. Does this mean that this month we’re meant to cheer ourselves up by eating cake? Finally, a reason to love February! There, I told you I was an optimist.
This post was first published in the February 2022 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.
A GOOD READ IN THE RUN-UP TO VALENTINE’S DAY
If you fancy a light-hearted comedy mystery to lift your spirts during the dark days of February, try Murder by the Book, my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery set in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.
Despite opening with someone falling to their death down the well behind the village pub, there is romance in the air for eccentric village shopkeeper Carol and her secret admirer, and also for Sophie and Hector, despite the playful intervention of Hector’s twin brother, just back from Australia. Available to order online in paperback and ebook here, or ask your local bookshop to order it in for you, quoting ISBN 978 1 911 223 269.