The 2nd of February, mid-winter, is now best known in Estonia as Tartu Rahulepingu Aastapäev, the Tartu Peace Day, the anniversary of the 1920 treaty between Estonia and the USSR that promised an everlasting peace that fell to pieces in 1941. But it is also küünlapäev - Candle day – one of the most important winter festivals on the Estonian islands and Lääne Shire (in the west), a time when the men start brewing beer. In the days when everything that one ate had to be grown locally it was the time when half the human and animal food was gone and so the day was said to be that on which the backbone or the heart of winter was broken, the stalks start to hate the snow, the sun starts to shine in the pig’s ear, etc… Get more information and some great pictures at http://www.folklore.ee/Berta !
Mid-winter celebration is very old - the Roman Lupercalia (named after Lupercus, god of shepherds) replaced an earlier Februa, that gives February its name. The Lupercalia rituals were intended to purify (spring clean) Rome and release health and fertility. Naked nobles and magistrates would run about hitting people with leather straps. I can’t see it going down well in Tartu when it’s –10 on average in February and a whipping is not number one on the list of fun things to do. But back in ancient Rome many women stretched out their hands to be slapped believing that it would reduce labour pains or help the barren to conceive. Brits could know it from Shakespeare- Julius Caesar begins during the Lupercalia when Mark Antony is instructed by Caesar to strike his wife Calpurnia in the hope that she will conceive:
Mid-winter was one of the four important days of year in pagan Ireland where it was known as Imbolc,’ from the Old Irish i mbolg "in the belly," a reference to pregnant sheep. Christians high jacked the festival for St Bridget, a 5th century abbess, whose monastery is said to have kept a sacred flame similar to the 'lamp of learning and wisdom' kept by female Druids. St B was fire-friendly and one story has her hanging her cloak on a sunbeam, which is useful, as you can’t always find a cloakroom when you need one. Bridgets of the world are also associated with holy springs and healing and should consider a career as a midwife – St B is supposed to have helped the Virgin Mary give birth to the light of the world and is the patron saint of midwives.
Smithing is also a career option but before the woman of the house rushes off to the local forge to sign up for lessons with a handsome, muscular village smith she should consider the drawbacks - her illustrious namesake was a lifelong virgin. Estonian Birgittas however, are (probably) off the hook being named after a 14th century Swedish abbess who had eight children before her husband died and she went to a convent, probably to get some peace and quiet. All her children survived infancy - a miracle in itself for the Middle Ages!
There’s more! The 2nd of February is the celebration of the Presentation of Jesus, when, in accordance with Jewish law, Mary purified herself forty days after giving birth, and, with Baby J (swathed in nappies and bawling his eyes out) and Joseph in tow, presented herself at the temple and offered a sacrifice. Both the Catholics and Orthodox regard this family outing as a major festival and the Anglican Churches celebrate “Wives' Feasts”, when women eat, drink and socialize and it seems like those old Estonians had the same idea! Candle day was the first great women’s holiday in Estonia when they when went to the village and the pub while the men did their work. .
Finally, there is Candlemas (Latin: Candelaria) when Christians bless candles to be used in the coming year. English superstition dictates that any Christmas decorations left over at Twelfth Night (January 6th) should be left up until Candlemas and then taken down. I should not take this too seriously as I know from personal experience that nothing dreadful will happen if there is one Christmas bauble left pinned up or has rolled, unnoticed, behind the chair. My mother always kept the Christmas decorations up until my birthday on 7th January and I am now 64 and still have all my own teeth and hair.
Candlemas is no longer important for most protestants, unlike the Catholics, and the Orthodox (who revere ‘Our Lady who softens evil hearts’ – and I’m all for that! - on 2nd February), but it lingers on in British folk memory as a day important for weather - “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fight, if Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter won't come back again.”
In North America, it’s Groundhog Day and the weather forecaster here is [/i]Marmota monax[/i] (also known as a woodchuck, whistle-pig, or land-beaver). If the critter comes out of its burrow and is frightened by its own shadow it will go back for a further six weeks' hibernation taking the sun with it. In Pennsylvania, Groundhog Lodges (Grundsow Lodges) have fersommlinge (social gatherings) with food, speeches and g'spiel (plays). Pennsylvanian German (Dutch) is the only permissible language and those who speak English pay a fine for every word. The most famous ground hog is called Punxsutawney Phil, a resident of Gobbler's Knob, near Punxsutawney town. Phil’s fans say that, despite the average groundhog life of 10 years, there is only one Phil (all the other groundhog weathermen are impostors), and that he has made weather prognostications for over 121 years as of 2011. They say that every summer, Phil is given a sip of the mysterious Groundhog Elixir, doled out by members of the Groundhog Club, which lengthens his life for seven years. Phil speaks to the Club President in "Groundhog-ese", which only the current president can understand, and his prediction is then translated for the entire world.
Some things strike me as particularly odd in my very odd life and one of them is that I was born at one end of the Hanse network and have ended up (2,000km away) at the other! I am reminded of this acutely in February because almost all the wax for candles that lit English churches and monasteries before the Reformation of Henry VIII came via Lord Novgorod the Great and much of it must have passed through Tartu, the last outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, in fat little cogs like Jõmmu, so lovingly reconstructed here on the banks of our mater aquarium …
But, enough! I leave you by our cold but serene and beautiful Emajõgi musing about Lupercus, the family outing of the Virgin Mary, the St Bridgets, Lord Novgorod the Great, Henry VIII and Punxsutawney Phil and his pals. And here, for added value, is an old Estonian beauty tip for küünlapäev - drink St John’s Wort for pink cheeks. And you thought it was just another boring day at the office...
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Küünlapäeval