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First Signs of Life

Chinese New Year. Lunar new year. Groundhog Day. Imbolc. Candlemas. St. Brigid’s day. Whatever the name, it’s about the first signs of new life.

This year, we had an auspicious meeting of lunar and solar holidays. The lunar holiday is the Chinese new year; the Chinese keep the old system of a lunar year with 13 months, so they don’t wind up with extra bits of day in the year, the way the Gregorian system does. So the Chinese new year is the lunar new year.

Plants for this holiday are, most famously, citrus, especially oranges, because of their round golden-orangeness: this is symbolic of money (pieces of gold), as well as sweetness and other kinds of prosperity.

The Gardening with Wilson site also lists that strange citrus known as “Buddha’s hand” as a lunar new year plant. He says they aren’t for eating, but they are fragrant and symbolize good luck, abundant wealth, and longevity. The only Buddha’s hand I’ve seen was in a public greenhouse, so I wasn’t able to test out the fragrance, but I love the looks.  The show-what-it-looks-like photo is at the top of this post, but I loved this view:

That citrus is in season around this time is, I’m sure, another reason they’re associated with the lunar new year. And, when you think about it, this really is an ancient sign of long life and prosperity: fruit in season. In a time when commercial sugar was not easily available, the sweet treats of citrus must have opened new dimensions of abundance and pleasure.

The solar holidays are Groundhog Day, Imbolc, and Candlemas – markers of the seasonal calendar in the northern hemisphere. While they have different names and backgrounds, these holidays are really all about the same thing: the return of life.They’re at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, a time when gardeners itch to get outside or begin sowing cool-weather plants, depending on the climate.

David Beaulieu points out that Groundhog Day is the only holiday solely devoted to the weather. I always have to look up whether spring comes sooner if the groundhog sees the shadow, or if it doesn’t. According to Beaulieu, spring comes early when the groundhog doesn’t spot a shadow, and this year was a shadowless year. The geese already flying over, and the buttercup leaves that have unfolded in protected spots in the warm spell are other predictors, but as usual, time will tell best.

Candlemas is basically a Christianized version of Imbolc, an ancient Celtic holiday, as is Brigid’s Day. Brigid was one of those goddesses they tried to tame by making her into a saint.

Candlemas day is another weather predictor. Lindy Washburn says that the basic idea is the same as for Groundhog Day, but couched more poetically. “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” In New Jersey, it was clear, unlike in Philadelphia where the Official Recording Groundhog resides. Will the weather be different in New Jersey and Philadelphia? What about the rest of us?

Historically, Candlemas was the day on which candles were blessed. That may seem strange to some now, but in a time when your ability to see, work, and even walk at night depended on candles, candles were important. Most people made candles in winter, when there was time off from farm work and fires were going all the time anyway.

Candlemas plants would then be all flowers (since beeswax is one of the traditional waxes) and the bayberry bush, which white settlers in New England made into candles. It takes a lot of berries – a whole lot of berries – to do that, so those colonists spent a lot of time in the bayberry bushes and surely must have associated them with the blessing of the candles. The major “plant” for Candlemas would have to be a cow, though, since most people used the less-expensive and less labor-intensive tallow for their candles. These days, I guess Candlemass plants would be fossilized plants that have become the petroleum which we now use for candles.

Another beeswax contributor

Brigid’s Day is also called Imbolc, the older Gaelic name (it’s not pronounced the way you’d think, but don’t ask me to give you the right pronunciation). Imbolc means “in the belly” and referred to the fact that, in the UK, this is the very beginning of lambing season.

Sheep were the source of food and warmth (in the form of wool). They were hugely important in Celitc agriculture. This is probably where our Groundhog Day tradition came from: the story is that on this day the old Cailleach goes out and looks for firewood. (The Cailleach is an ancient female spirit, who may sometimes be Brigid in one of her guises.) If the day is bright and sunny, it means she has a lot of time for gathering firewood – which means winter will last longer. If it’s cloudy, spring will come soon.

In a way, all plants are associated with this day, as Brigid is goddess (excuse me, I mean saint) of fertility, creativity, healing, and poetry, and is associated with fire (such as the returning flame of the sun). In Ireland, as in my area, grass often starts to spring up about this time.

Traditionally, last year’s wheat stalks were woven into an image of Brigid to celebrate this day; she was dressed and laid in a basket. The symbology of planting a seed is clear.

An extension of this tradition brings us some of the same symbology  as for the Chinese New Year: in many places, this is called Pancake Day. Gingerbread snowflakes points out that golden, round pancakes represent the sun. By this time, it’s easy to tell it’s staying light later and earlier. And the inclusion of last year’s harvest seems like a natural form of priming the pump for the coming year.

And, I realize, those mandarin oranges that are so popular for Chinese New Year gifts must do the same thing – along with representing money. Because the deepest source of human wealth is returning plant growth. Everything we do depends on it, now as in ancient times.

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