I've been looking forward to writing today's blog for a while, but then I almost mistimed it; February has crept up on me; only a chance text from a friend telling me her plans to celebrate Imbolc and the Lunar New Year together ensured you're not getting this blog a week late. As usual, my starting point was opening up The Almanac and immediately I saw that the first 5 days of February are an extremely busy time for celebrating. Of course it is just coincidence that Imbolc falls on the new moon this year, thus making it Lunar New Year and Chinese New Year, but we also have St Brigid's Day, Candlemas - both Christian festivals, and then on 5th February, Vasant Panchami, observed by Hindus and Sikhs, which always falls 5 days after the new moon. I love this time of year, although I am approaching Candlemas with a certain amount of trepidation; on twelfth night when I couldn't bear the thought of taking down my rainbow Christmas lights, I decided to observe the tradition of keeping decorations up until Candlemas, but I am not sure that I am quite ready to let them go. As I read about each of the festivals, I was enthralled by where they overlap in terms of tradition and celebration.
St Brigid’s Day has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc and it is the festival of new life and fertility. It was a time to look forward to brighter days, warmer weather, new growth on the land and the birth of farm animals. I wrote in more detail about Brigid and the associated festivals on the blog last year; we also had a guide to making your own St Brigid's cross, two videos about the onset of Spring and the returning light and a wonderful light-filled meditation. Gosh, we were busy last February!
So, this year, let's look at Chinese New Year. Although it arrives in winter, the Chinese call it the Spring Festival because the "beginning of spring" (February 4-18) is the first period in the traditional solar calendar. The beginning of spring marks the end of the coldest part of winter, and is a time to plan for the coming springtime. This is reflected in the Chinese proverb, "the whole year is planned in the spring". In all cultures it seems that people welcome spring and what it brings with it: crops and harvests, new beginnings, the hope of a better life, a better job, that everything will be fine during the year. I guess this is why Spring is often referred to as "The King of Seasons". Originally the lunar new year was a ceremonial day with prayers to the gods for good weather and plentiful harvests in the yea ahead. These days it is celebrated with lion dances, money gifts given in red envelopes, twinkling lights (maybe I can keep my lights after all!) and fireworks. Again something seen in across all these festivals is the ritual of cleaning, usually before the celebrations start so that you don't brush away your good fortune for the year. Last year we also made a video about spring cleaning, so if you still have the remnants of your Christmas tree lying around, check it out. In the Chinese zodiac, the year ahead is the year of the Tiger and the element associated with it is water, so it is known as the year of the Water Tiger, which sounds impossibly glamorous.
Vasant Panchami is a Hindu festival which is also celebrated by Sikhs and marks the preparation for the arrival of Spring, which is believed to occur 40 days hence. The day is dedicated to goddess Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, learning and arts and it is considered an auspicious day to get married, start a new project or undertake good deeds. The colour of this festival is yellow which is a colour I certainly associate with this time of year as I wait for the daffodils to bloom. There is even a special dessert made which is coloured yellow using saffron; check out this recipe for kesar halva. Brightly coloured kites are also flown above the festivities, something else I'd definitely be up for trying.
For my celebrations, I'm now looking a menu of colcannon in honour of Brigid, dumplings for the Chinese element and now kesar halva for pudding. I'm going to celebrate with red and yellow and twinkling lights. I love that all these festivals occur between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, marking winter's halfway point, and that there is often a ritual of purification and cleansing associated with them. A time to clear away the winter stagnation and embark on new projects, as the freezing temperatures lose their grip to be replaced by spring warmth, talking of which, one final note.
The 2nd February is Groundhog Day, a popular North American tradition. The story goes that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day and is able to see its shadow due to clear weather, then he retreats to his den for another six weeks of winter; if he is unable to see his shadow due to cloudy skies, then spring is to arrive early. This superstition originates with the Pennsylvania Dutch, and was of course made famous worldwide by the eponymous film. It seems that different countries have different weather predicting animals; in Germany it was the badger, in Britain the hedgehog. In Scotland the animal that heralds spring on this day is the snake, and the day of this weather prediction was St Brigid's Day, so here we are back where we started. This seems a good time to mention that if you want to know more about badgers, then check out the Scottish Badgers website where you can Earn Your Stripes with their educational programme, and perhaps find out if it's true they are able to predict the coming of Spring.