Despite the Christmas song, February is actually the bleak midwinter. Around February 1 is the midway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. People feel very much in the dark, but there is a hint of light ahead. Spring is coming, but not now. As such, several holidays mark this midway point.
The Celtic calendar had Imbolc. There is some disagreement on the meaning of the word imbolc, but some say that it is Old Irish for “cleansing.” People would begin preparations for spring and make divinations about the future. It was all about looking forward. Divinations about the future continue with Groundhog’s Day in America on February 2. People watch to see how the sun hits a rodent to determine how much longer winter will last. In Germanic cultures, it’s a bear seeing its shadow. In Celtic cultures, a hag collecting firewood. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it’s another six weeks of winter (but it’s another six weeks of winter on the calendar either way). Still, looking forward to far off spring.
Also on February 2 is Candlemas. Candlemas is 40 days after Christmas and commemorates Jesus’ presentation at the Temple. It is also called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Jewish custom, women waited 40 days after the birth of a son then went to the Temple to present the child (Lev. 12:2-8). The parents would offer a sacrifice, a lamb or turtle dove. The mother would also undergo mikvah, a ceremonial washing (the precursor to baptism). During the presentation, Simeon gives his prophecy, calling Jesus the light and revelation to the Gentiles.
In the Church, people came to have beeswax candles blessed on this date (hence the name Candlemas) and pray for light. St. Anselm noted the candles’ significance: Candles are made of wax, wick, and flame. The wax is a product of the bee (a symbol of virginity) and represent’ s Christ’s flesh, which came into the world through the Blessed Virgin. The wick, held within, is his soul, and the flame, which flutters atop, is his divinity.
Although the days are lengthening, it is still a time of darkness. We cling to little candle light or sunlight we have and slowly thaw out, prepare for warmer days. Winter is colliding into spring. Our bodies are still in mid-winter, but our minds and hearts are looking forward. And this is where is find the beginning of Lent. Lent is starting early this year, tagging on at the end of these mid-winter holidays. It’s six more weeks of winter, of penance and fasting. But at the end is Easter. The spring of our salvation is coming, just not now.