Sandy’s Garden

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Candlemas Day

The second day of February has been celebrated as the festival of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary within the wider Christian church from a very early date in the history of Christianity: but an even older festival, the Festival of Februation, marked the purification of the people in pagan Rome; and it is very possible … indeed, quite likely … that the early Christians adapted the older festival to a Christian purpose. Be that as it may, it is a fact that, for the better part of twenty centuries, February 2 has been marked by a blessing of candles by the clergy and a distribution of them among the congregation, by whom they are afterwards carried lighted in a solemn procession, a ceremony that is remembered to this day in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

An early Latin distich relates: Si sol plendescat Maria purificante, / Major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante; and, as we all know, this translates into Scots as: “If Candlemas Day be dry and fair, / The hauf o’ Winter’s tae come an’ mair; / If Candlemas Day be wet an’ foul, / The hauf o’ Winter’s gane at Yule.” This is, of course, a long-range weather forecast in a bid to predict whether to expect a good Summer, a Summer of plentiful blooms and fruitful crops, or whether the fates are against farmers and gardeners with the coming months filled with agricultural and horticultural disasters.

Candlemas Day is one of the so-called Quarter Days, the days that used to be held to mark the changing of the seasons, with Candlemas Day marking the transition from Winter to Spring. Our ancestors believed that this was a day when the veil that separates the natural world from the supernatural world was at its thinnest, a day when there was every likelihood of being confronted by the powers of evil of enchantment. And, just as we carry lanterns at Hallowe’en to scare off evil spirits, it was seen as smart to carry a lighted candle on Candlemas Day, a holy light being regarded as a useful ally on such a day!

Yet it is these same supernatural powers which may help gardeners learn whether they will enjoy plentiful harvests if they dare risk involvement with them. To explain one traditional Scots way of treating with the powers of the supernatural world that pass our understanding, I really cannot do better than quote the words of Martin Martin exactly, author of A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, 1695 a volume published in /Edinburgh in 1703 and reprinted in replica by Mercat Press in 1981. On Candlemas Day, according to this authority, the Hebrideans observe this custom: “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 Brüd’s Bed; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, “Brüd is come; Brüd is welcome! Brüd is come; Brüd is welcome! Brüd is come; Brüd 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 Brüd’s club there; which, if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and a prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.”

What do you think? Is it worth a try? Then I’ll have to rebuild my fireplace to accept a real fire, coach my wife in what is expected of her and try to engage some servants in the course of the day, as well as lay my hands on a sheaf of oats; and it’s all going to be complicated by the need to keep a lighted candle handy to scare off any wandering spectre who comes my way. And even then it might be bad news!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society