The start of February is filled with significance. For many Pagans it marks the holiday of Imbolc, seen by some as the start of Spring (and by many others as the height of Winter). Millions more celebrate it as Candlemass or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. In the United States February 2 is most commonly thought of as Groundhog Day, which is a seasonal ritual to determine how much longer Winter will last.
February 2 is a busy time of year on the calendar because it’s a celestially auspicious occasion. I know it as a “cross quarter holiday” meaning it’s a date in-between a solstice and an equinox. Various cultures would have known this thousands of years ago as well, which is why so many holidays are celebrated on that day. Like most holidays the origins of Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day are shrouded in mystery, but there are a few things we can say with some certainty.
What follows are several of the most common misconceptions I tend to hear around this time of year. If you want footnotes and more information about the topics here follow the links provided. I write a lot about holidays, and some of my articles are more scholarly than others.
We don’t know that much about Imbolc. I remember reading lots of historical sounding stuff about Imbolc during my early Pagan years, but most of that was probably wishful thinking. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know very much about the actual ancient holiday celebrated on that date. The first written reference to Imbolc dates only to the 10th or 11th Centuries and was first written down by Irish (Christian) monks.
The word Imbolc only shows up in Ireland too. We have no way of knowing if the holiday was celebrated across the Celtic world. It was most certainly an ancient pagan holiday, but beyond that it’s hard to say anything with absolute certainty. The word Imbolc most likely has something to do with milking and perhaps purification, both things associated with the holiday today. I think it’s safe to say that Imbolc would have been seen as the start of Spring by the Celts of Ireland, and at least in some places it was sacred to the Pagan Goddess/Christian Saint Brighid/Brigid. While most Americans celebrate Imbolc on Feb. 2, the holiday its self was originally celebrated at sundown on the first, lasting of course until the next sunset. On the Catholic calendar St. Brigid’s Day is still celebrated on the first of February.
Brighid was an Irish-Celtic goddess and later a Christian Saint. There are Christians who will try to deny this but I don’t buy the argument. What we don’t know about the goddess Brighid is just how far her worship spread. Some think of her as a near-universal Celtic deity while others think that her worship might have been localized to what is now Kildare Ireland. There also might have been several dozen Brighids worshipped throughout the British Isles, perhaps with each one being a variation of the original. It’s impossible to say with certainty.
As for the Irish Saint there are no contemporary records attesting to her existence, and her myth is extremely garbled. She appears in stories at the birth of Jesus and was said to have died in 524 CE. Much like the goddess version there are also several different versions of “the saint.” One medieval listing includes 25 different Brigits/Bríds, and it’s likely that none of them were historical personages.
The Saint and the Goddess continue to intermingle into the present day. The first recorded instance of Brigit’s Cross dates from the 17th Century for example. Brigit’s Bed can be found a bit earlier in the historical record, but not by much. Both of these things are often practiced by Pagans today, though they may have Christian origins.
Candlemas is not a Christianized version of Imbolc. The earliest celebrations of Candlemas date back to fourth century Greece, it was later adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the Seventh Century. Candlemas can’t be a corrupted form of Imbolc because Imbolc wasn’t celebrated in Greece or Rome. There are some overlaps between Candlemas and pagan antiquity, they just have nothing to do with Imbolc.
The Latin word februa signified purification and there was even a holiday of that name celebrated in the middle of the month of Februarius. Christian celebrations of Candlemas often included a ritual of purification, obviously borrowed from the pagans. Later Christians would add a candle blessing of their own invention to the holiday. Many Protestants believed such candle blessings to be pagan in origin, even though there’s no documentation saying so.
Punxsutawney Phil is not a hidden version of The Goddess. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but the Goddess was not magically transformed into a groundhog by a group of Christians. There’s nothing to suggest that Groundhog Day has anything to do with Goddess worship or Jesus for that matter. The American celebration of Groundhog Day was begun by the Pennsylvania Dutch (a group of German descent), which is one of the reasons (along with Bill Murray) why Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous groundhog/weather prognosticator in North America.
Early European versions of Groundhog Day featured badgers and bears instead of groundhogs, but where exactly the tradition came from remains a bit of a mystery. My best guess is that it has something to do with animals waking up from hibernation, but no one knows for sure. Is it an ancient pagan tradition? Possibly, and it certainly makes as much sense as anything else. There’s nothing explicitly linking it to ancient pagan celebrations, but it had to come from somewhere. Certainly a link with the Irish-Celtic Imbolc is unlikely because Imbolc wasn’t a German holiday.
Many Modern Imbolc rituals have been influenced by Christian observances. I know that’s true in my case. This Imbolc my coven will be blessing several new quarter candles. This seems like the right time of year to celebrate the return of the light, and I don’t care where the tradition comes from. If something is practical and has value then I’m going to use it.
Curiously the earliest Modern Witches referred to their February sabbat as Candlemas and not Imbolc. I don’t plan to follow in their footsteps next week, but if the name was worth borrowing why not some of the traditions? Whether or not Brighid’s Bed is an Irish-Pagan tradition or a Christian one matters very little to me. That’s also going to be a part of our rite.
February 2 is a busy day on the calendar not because everyone was stealing from Irish-Celts, but because it’s a day that speaks to many of us humans. After a month and a half of official Winter the days are finally getting noticeably longer. One doesn’t have to be a Pagan to celebrate such things, though certainly the parties and the celebrations are better.