Candlemas is celebrated on February 2nd. It is 40 days after 25th December, and so it is believed to be the day that Mary was purified after giving birth and therefore the day that Jesus was first taken to the temple.

The date is known as Candlemas because in the 11th century all candles that were going to be used in church that year were blessed, and people took their own candles to church to be blessed also.

In Mexico the date is called Día de la Candelaria and it marks the end at the Christmas celebrations. The baby Jesus is taken from the Nativity scene and dressed in a special outfit before being taken to church to be blessed. According to tradition, whoever found the baby Jesus charm inside the Roscón on 6th January has to buy the tamales (chicken and meat wrapped in corn dough) for the party after the Candelaria ceremony.

February 2nd is also linked to many non-Christian festivals relating to hopes and prayers for a good harvest later in the year. It is the date of the pagan festival of Imbolc, the Roman festival of Lupercalia and a Mexican festival were the indigenous villages took their corn to be blessed before planting.

Summer Solstice

In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year).  It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.

Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them.  The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky.  These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society.  As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year.  In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day.  In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness.  Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.

Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations.  As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling.  Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.

As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance.  In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.

No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!).  As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays.  And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.

Thank you again to my lovely husband, Ian Braisby (Blue Badge Guide), for writing this piece for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox, Yule

St George’s Day

“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”
William Shakespeare, Henry V

When the name of St George is mentioned in Britain these days, our thoughts turn to English patriotism, as summed up in Shakespeare’s rousing conclusion to King Henry V’s famous speech, given before he leads out his men to victory over the French army at Agincourt.

On 23rd April every year, we celebrate the feast day of England’s patron saint.  But who was he, and how does he come to be a symbol of England? Did he really slay a dragon?  And why is our national day not a public holiday and an occasion for mass public celebration like those of the other countries of the British Isles?

Let’s start with what we know of the man himself.  According to tradition, he was born to wealthy parents in Roman-ruled Palestine, and lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a senior officer in the Roman army and a favourite of the Emperor, Diocletian.  However, he was raised as a Christian and spoke out against Roman persecution of the emerging religion, refusing to carry out acts of violence against fellow Christians.  He publicly declared his faith in a face-to-face confrontation with the Emperor, who offered him land, money and titles to renounce his faith.  As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by beheading.  He came to be venerated as a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox church over subsequent centuries.  When Western European crusaders were fighting in the Holy Land a thousand years ago, this figure of a brave, Christian soldier led to the saint being adopted by many knights, who brought George and his legends back to the West.

So what about that dragon?  Slaying mythical beasts, particularly dragons, is something that crops up a lot in legends, and is very often a metaphor for fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds, defying the political powers that are in place, and for battling against and triumphing over evil.  St George’s military background, defence of his faith and refusal to submit to Roman authority fit all of these criteria, and it is perhaps no surprise that dragon slaying was added to the legends that were built up around him, and popularised in the West by chroniclers who had accompanied the Crusades.

St. George is not England’s original patron saint.  Several other figures, including Saxon kings Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, had been viewed as the most important “national” saints in the medieval period.  It is down to later kings that St George overtook them.  Himself a famous crusader, Edward I had his armies fighting the Welsh under the banner of St George and the saint became a symbol of English royal strength (especially in military terms).  This was continued by Edward III, who made St George the patron of his new Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England, and Henry V whose devotion to St George was not just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination.  The outstanding military victories achieved by these successive kings helped to turn the saint from a royal saint to a national one.  As well as being patron saint of England, he has that distinction for various other countries – including Ukraine, Portugal and Georgia although the latter, despite many claims to the contrary, is not named after him.

The flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, was a widely used symbol at the time of the crusades and became associated with St George when groups of knights adopted him as their patron (in other words, the flag was assigned to the saint and has no link to him in terms of the original legends).  The flag became part of the insignia of the kings of England and, after the split from the Roman Catholic church, was the only saint’s banner permitted to be used in English churches – thus cementing its position as a symbol of English identity and independence.  When the United Kingdom was established as a political union, the cross of St George represented England (and Wales) in the new Union Flag.

Despite a long history as patron saint, St George’s feast day has never been celebrated as a major holiday in England.  This contrasts with his counterparts in Wales (St David), Scotland (St Andrew) and, especially, Ireland (St Patrick).  These days, many towns and cities do have “St George’s Day” events, but these generally take place on the closest weekend to the actual day.  It is not a public holiday, despite limited but growing calls for it to be declared as one.  The reasons why the English patron saint’s feast is celebrated to a lesser extent probably lies in England’s political dominance of its neighbours.  In their cases, local traditions and symbols were very important as representations of their continuing independent spirit and culture despite being politically ruled by England.  There was no need for this to happen in England and so it never really did.  In recent years, greater political self-determination in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and ongoing debates over the future of the United Kingdom as a political entity have led to a growing search for a distinctly “English” – as opposed to British – identity.  This has manifested itself in a growing number of St George’s Day events, and increasing use of the flag as a national symbol (helped by its association with sports teams, notably the England football team – witness the number of flags on cars and in windows around the time of the major international tournaments).  However, this has not been without controversy as the flag also has very negative connotations through its use by football hooligans and extreme right-wing political parties.  There have been concerted efforts to “reclaim” the flag, as part of a wider move to establish a positive and inclusive English identity for the future.

So when we see those flags flying today, and no doubt during the forthcoming World Cup, we are witnessing the latest chapter in a centuries-old story that moves from the Roman army, to the Crusades, to the Reformation to modern England.  And even if there wasn’t really a dragon involved, that’s a pretty impressive story.

This is a guest post from Ian Braisby, Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Related posts: St Andrew’s DaySt David’s DaySt Patrick’s Day

What are the origins of Valentine’s Day?

heartToday is Valentine’s Day so I thought it was a good opportunity to explore the origins of this day.

Why do we celebrate Valentine’s Day on the 14th February?

There have been several St Valentine’s throughout history, but the most likely one to be commemorated was a Roman priest who is purported to have conducted secret marriage ceremonies for soldiers. At the time soldiers were forbidden to marry because it was believed domestic bliss would reduce their efficiency as soldiers.

When he was found out, he was imprisoned.  The story goes that he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and on the eve of his death wrote her a letter signed “from your Valentine”.

However, Valentine’s Day wasn’t associated with romance until Chaucer’s time when he wrote about it being the day that birds chose their mates. February is early though for birds to begin mating, so why is February 14th the date chosen for Valentine’s Day?

One possibility is that it is the anniversary of St Valentine’s death. The other is that the date was chosen to coincide with a festival that was already taking place. The festival of Lupercalia was a pagan fertility festival that took place between 13th-15th February to celebrate the coming of spring. As many Christian and pagan festivals were amalgamated by the Romans, this is a likely explanation.