Wednesday, 3 February 2010


   Last night was Chandeleur, which is also the Fête des crêpes in France.  When I used to teach English here, my students would tell me that in the evening on Chandeleur you are supposed to make crêpes and then, holding a piece of money in one hand, you flip the crêpe up in the air and if it lands in the pan on its opposite side, then you will have prosperity for the year.   So we made our crêpes and I held on to my 50 cent piece and after a few tries one flew magically up and over, the first time I'd ever managed to pull that off.   

    I did a bit of reading up on Chandeleur and found that it's actually a Christian holiday celebrating Jesus' presentation in the temple, and that the name of the festival comes from the custom of lighting candles to symbolise purification on this day (Candlemas in English).  I found a lot written about the related Celtic festival of Imbolc which is celebrated at the same time and is in honour of the goddess Brighid.  The day is known as St. Brigid's day to Catholics (it is celebrated two weeks later in Orthodox Churches).  The goddess and the saint are certainly related but to what extent is unclear -- whether the saint was created by the Church and given the attributes of a popular goddess in order to convert local populations; or, as the stories of St. Brigid say, that she was named for the goddess by her pagan father and the other similarities are either coincidental or a result of a sort of blending of the two over time. 

  Personally, I would like to believe that there actually was a woman called Brigid, because the stories about her are very impressive.  In an extremely patriarchal time, she is supposed to have founded a women's art school and abbeys where women could study, in addition to being consecrated as a bishop.  The art school is credited with making The Book of Kildare, which some believe has now been misidentified as The Book of Kells and other say has been lost but was the equal of the latter book in terms of craftsmanship.

   As well as the holiday's relation to the older Celtic festival, it seems possible that there is a link between this festival and another old festival celebrated by followers of bear cults formerly found in much of Western Europe and Scandinavia.  The beginning of February was the time when bears in these parts would awaken from hibernation and leave their den.  At this festival people would dress up like bears and act out stories where they kidnapped young women... which sounds like it might have some relation to the myth of Proserpina whose return to her mother was celebrated at this time of year as the the return of spring.  Apparently, Pope Innocent XII believed that Candlemas was created by the Church as an alternative to Roman pagan celebrations (wiki). 

   But the bear cult celebration reminds me of another 2nd of February custom, at least in North America -- Groundhog Day.  On this day we lure an animal that looks rather like a little bear from it's den, so that we can divine whether Spring has arrived or if there will be six more weeks of winter.  If he is frightened back into his den by his shadow we can expect more Winter,  which reflects other traditions that clear weather on this day means bad weather to come.  Anyway, it doesn't seem to me like a huge stretch to link this custom, which apparently came over from Germany, back to bear cults celebrating the first emergence of the bear after hibernation.  

     In everything I read, the main connecting themes seem to be renewal, purification and the beginning of Spring... and just maybe the round crêpe is a solar symbol and it's flipping over is a expression of the start of the new season.  Frankly, I'm happy enough just to have gotten my crêpe to flip whether that's it or not.  I love these customs that just seem to come from nowhere.  Nobody I asked was able to tell me why I was supposed to flip a crêpe on this day and I was unable to explain to them the reasons behind Groundhog Day... and of course, who knows if I know anything more about the truth of it now.  

   When we lived in Japan, one day one of my husband's co-workers gave him some beans and told him to throw one outside of every window in the house on a certain day so that no ogres would come into the house.  I'd never worried too much about ogres before, but we made sure to throw the beans out the windows.  Who knows what's behind something like that.


1 comment:

  1. ha!
    please let me know which day that is, i will be ready with beans.
    i love the stories of the saints which focus on their capabilities and amazing achievements. and the ways that similar tales will wind all around time and space are fascinating to me. thanks!