If the cold, dark days are getting you down, then here’s a blog from our curator Liz to bring you a little cheer!
During the gloomiest days of the year, when spring and summer seem a long way into the future and Christmas and New Year celebrations a long way in the past, it is good to know that February is a short month with several celebrations to anticipate!
The month opens with Candlemas Day on 2nd February. This early Christian festival celebrates the day, when the Virgin Mary went to the temple to be cleansed after giving birth to Jesus, and to present her baby to God. In the medieval church a special mass service was held on the day, which was marked with a candle lit procession, hence the name ‘Candlemas’.
Badgers take centre stage
February 2nd also marks the midpoint of winter, between the shortest day on 21st December and the spring equinox on 20th March, and this perhaps suggests the ancient farming roots of festivities on the day. It was also a day when traditionally the weather for the rest of the winter could be predicted. Cold and bright weather on the day was said to foretell a cold end to the winter, while mild and wet weather was said to predict a gentler transition into spring.
An alternative name for the day was ‘Badgers’ Day’, as it was believed in some parts of Huntingdonshire (and more widely across Europe) that badgers would wake up on that day, go to the entrance of their sett (burrow) and their actions would predict the weather ahead. If it was sunny, and they could see the shadow of their tail on the ground, then they would go back to sleep as it was a sure sign more cold weather was coming. When Europeans emigrated to America from the later 1600s they took this belief with them. Then, observing that the behaviour of the North American groundhog was similar to that of the European badger, there the 2nd February became known as Groundhog Day.
Pancakes and penitence
February is also the month in the Christian calendar when Lent begins. This is the period of denial and fasting which begins with Shrove Tuesday, marking the lead up to Easter. Of course Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day when everyone uses up their milk, eggs and flour ready for fasting in Lent. In St Neots, the day was marked by the ringing of the pancake bell from the parish church, which continued until 1914. It is obviously no accident that Lent used to coincide with a period when food supplies from the previous year’s harvest might be running low, and so for many people there would be less to eat in February.
Like Candlemas, Shrove Tuesday (when you were ‘shriven’ or absolved of your sins) has its roots in ancient farming and fertility rituals. In the Roman calendar the festival of Lupercalia was held in mid-February to drive off evil spirits and purify the land, bringing health and fertility in the coming year.
Love is in the air
Also celebrated during February is St Valentine’s Day. The day is said to commemorate the martyrdom of a Roman Christian called Valentine on the 14th February AD269, but how this event became a day celebrating true love is unclear! Perhaps this is another case of an ancient rural tradition – one that states that birds would choose their mate on this day – being given a new Christian meaning by the early Christian church. Whatever the truth of its origins, Valentine’s Day (and the associated sweet treats to go with it) is now another festival to look forward to in February.