Candlemas

Today is Candlemas, inextricably tied up with snowdrops in my head – one of my favourite flowers. There were often called Candlemas Lilies or Candlemas Bells in days gone by.

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‘The Snowdrop, in purest white array, First rears her head on Candlemas day’
Folklore, an Old Rhyme
Snowdrops and Violets by Eva Francis 1903
Snowdrops and Violets by Eva Francis    (c) Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

Today is Candlemas, inextricably tied up with snowdrops in my head – one of my favourite flowers. They were often called Candlemas Lilies or Candlemas Bells in days gone by.

Many is the year that we’ve had snowdrops before Christmas even – often in colder times than this mild, wet winter has been. I can’t say that my snowdrops ‘reared their heads’ today, but they are only just really starting to come out. I’ve always loved the way they flower even when snow is on the ground, they look too delicate for such cold. I suppose that’s why the French call them Perce-Neige.

 

Snowdrops by Jennifer Johnson r
Snowdrops by Jennifer Johnson

 

But there is more to Candlemas than snowdrops, pretty as they are. It is a great marker in the year, significant because it says that Christmas is long gone and we have moved on, the year is already past its infancy. This day has been celebrated for thousands of years, and was also known as the Festival of Lights, the name coming from Roman times when Ceres (or Demeter in Greek) is supposed to have searched for her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) by the light of hundreds of candles. Proserpine had been abducted by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and needless to say, Ceres could not find her anywhere on earth. In rage, she brought life to a standstill: fruit, flowers and crops stopped growing, and a desert appeared wherever Ceres set her foot in the vain search for her daughter. Eventually, divine intervention was called for, and to cut a long story short, Proserpine – after eating 6 pomegranate seeds – was allowed to return to earth for six months of every year, her return symbolising the cycle of death, rebirth and regeneration.

 

Snowdrops by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Snowdrops by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

The Celts knew this same festival as Imbolc, a name that derives from the word for milk, as this was the time that lambs were born and milk returned to the menu. As with the Romans and Greeks, this was also the festival of the Maiden Goddess, who in Ireland was Brighid, the Goddess of fire, poetry and healing. This was a time to bless agricultural implements and livestock and turn towards hopes of fertility in the year to come. For this same reason, in the north of England, Candlemas used to be called The Wives Feast Day because it was regarded as a fertility festival.

The Emperor Justinian wrapped all these traditions up neatly (as was the wont in the Christian church) and from the ancient festival created the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that candles were thereafter lighted to her – hence the name Candlemas(s); and at some stage the Celtic Goddess Brighid became St Bridget, and the old tradition of making corn dollies turned into Bridget’s Crosses, which are still made today – Irish school children being shown how to bend and weave the rushes every year.

 

st bridgets cross c
St Bridget’s Cross woven from rushes

 

And the little white flowers that are so tied up with Candlemas? It is thought that monks brought the first snowdrop bulbs to western Europe from Turkey, and grew them in monastery gardens, placing the delicate flowers on the altar at Candlemas.

But there are other, more ancient myths about these Fair Maids of February, as snowdrops were also called. It is said that after being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve wept desperately as endless snow fell, covering the earth, removing all trace of colour and life. But an angel took pity on her, caught a snowflake in his hand and breathed on it. As it fell to earth, it became the first snowdrop. In Germany, there is a different tale. They say that when God made the earth, he told the snow to ask the flowers for some colour, but every flower refused – except for the snowdrop, which is why snow is white.

 

snowdrops by Jennifer Mackenzie r

Snowdrops by Jennifer Mackenzie

 

Rather more mundanely, in some parts of the world, today is also known as Groundhog Day. Somehow it loses some of its magic at this point, but I have read that this was another Imbolc tradition. It refers to a kind of marmot in the USA, but here perhaps it was a hedgehog. Seemingly, the creature emerged from hibernation on this day, and if it saw its shadow, that meant six more weeks of bad weather. But there was one way to try and get around this eventuality – you could place a candle in your window on Imbolc Eve, representing the Eternal Flame of the Maiden Goddess. Back to candles again.

A friend has recently bought an old farmhouse in Wales. Recently an elderly couple came to the door – he had known the place since childhood, as it belonged to his grandmother. When his own daughter was young, he told my friend, she came running to her parents, whispering that she had found ‘little secrets’. They followed her outside and discovered that she was talking about snowdrops, blooming in the nearby copse that is carpeted with them to this day. For such a tiny flower, this jewel of the winter has some lovely names, and ‘Little Secrets’ is another one.

 

Snowdrops at Millvale on a Frosty Morning by Cora Harrington r
Snowdrops at Millvale on a Frosty Morning                 by Cora Harrington

 

Thou first-born of the year’s delight,
Pride of the dewy glade,
In vernal green and virgin white,
Thy vestal robes, array’d
John Keble’s verse about snowdrops from his book:
The Christian Year, 1827

 

 

 

 

 

Daffodils

mini daffs c r

 

I bought a big bunch of daffodils for my mother, while I was in Suffolk. Both she and I love them, and nothing is as cheery as their yellow trumpets at this time of year. To be honest, I feel rather cheated, finding daffodils on sale and yet half the snowdrops in my own garden haven’t opened yet! What an odd year it is. Anyway, I spotted them on my trip to Ipswich, and the bunch was so big we split them into several vases for the sitting room, the dining room table and the kitchen windowsill.

Perfect.

Even better was hearing what the flowers sparked in my mother’s head, to see her eyes light up, and to feel her come alive with memories. She remembered her grandmother packing them into boxes to send to Plymouth and beyond. Her grandparents had a market garden, as it used to be called in those days, on the Tamar in Cornwall. There aren’t many photographs of that era, but I have one of them when they were older, Alfred and Minnie Annie Frances with an armful of daffodils, their beloved dog Rufus in the background. I don’t remember my great grandparents – they died when I was a small child, living abroad, but I hoard the snippets of information that my mother drops from time to time. They are part of what and who I am, despite never having known them.

calstock c r
My great grandparents in Cornwall

 

Some years ago, visiting my soul-mate in Wiltshire, I stumbled upon a local art exhibition and was irresistibly drawn to one painting. It was of dawn rising over a field of daffodils. It took me back to a place I had never actually known. The artist was present during my visit and when she saw me looking at her picture, she came over. ‘It was in Cornwall,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t help but paint it.’

I couldn’t help but buy it.

blog daffodils
A scene my great grandmother must have woken to many, many times

 

As we sat down for lunch at my parent’s house last week, the vase of yellow daffs making our weekday meal seem special, my mother, lightly fingering the petals, started to quote a poem. Not Wordsworth’s well known, if rather hackneyed lines. It was Robert Herrick:

            To Daffodils

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
         You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
         Has not attain’d his noon.
                        Stay, stay,
                Until the hasting day
                        Has run
                But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
         We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
         As you, or anything.
                        We die
                As your hours do, and dry
                        Away,
                Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.
Robert Herrick

A few days later, back in Ireland, tired from my UK visit and from a long day of travel, I found a pot of miniature yellow Tête á Tête on my own kitchen window sill. They are a vital part of January and February for me – I buy a pot most weeks, along with my groceries and dog food, and when they have finished blooming, I plant them in the garden: a joy for the early spring next year. But this season, being away, I haven’t yet bought any. This was a pot the In-Charge had found, struggling to life in a corner of the garden, forgotten last year no doubt when I was so busy with Bloom.

A perfect welcome home.

blog mini daffs c r

 

 

Here are more memories of my great grandparents

Here is the latest post from my other blog: Challenge? You’ve 10 Trillion to Dinner

 

Opaque Legacies

Today is the anniversary of my grandparents’ wedding. They were married on the 3rd of January 1928 in Calstock, a beautiful, tiny place in Cornwall – Edith Christian to Josiah George. Her own parents, Minnie-Annie Frances and Alfred had made him wait 7 years for her.

Christian Lyme Regis Sep 1930 s
My grandmother, Edith Christian

It sounds Biblical, and in 2016 unthinkable. Now they would just have gone and done the deed, but back then I suppose things often happened that way. They didn’t want him to marry their daughter, not for any other reason than that he would be taking her away to far off Derbyshire. It was a long way, in an age when lots of people didn’t move very far. The irony was that Christian had met him on a reluctantly agreed day out with some of her girlfriends – they went off to St Michael’s Mount together and there he was, a ‘foreigner’, waiting to sweep her off her feet. She must have been 20, or 21 and I daresay she’d had plenty of time to weigh up the local lads by then, and obviously none of them cut the mustard.

Calstock young c
Alfred and Minnie-Annie Frances

I never knew my grandmother. Either of my grandmothers, for that matter. They both died very young, so perhaps Minnie-Annie Frances or Alfred had a premonition that time was short, and kept her close for as many years as possible. She died when my mother was just 11, going on 12, and I believe that she died on Valentine’s Day, which seems a cruel twist of the knife.

I remember my grandfather looking at me, when I was about 16 or 17. I remember the expression on his face startling me, frightening me almost, because he looked so – vulnerable. Hurting. With tears in his eyes, he told me that I looked just like her.

He didn’t have a very happy life, I think. He waited 7 years for the woman he loved, travelling up and down to Cornwall and taking her for walks through the woods by the river there. Hare Wood. They named their house after those woods. He took me to them once, when I was quite a small child. I remember it still, running down through the sloping glades, the bluebells coming up to my waist, a sea of lavender blue stretching in every direction, the smell of them – the never-to-be forgotten smell of them, the river glinting in the valley beneath. He married again after his wife died, but not for love. I don’t know why he did it, probably to provide a maternal figure for his twin daughters, but it was a mistake. She was tight-lipped and unloving, and she possibly regretted it too, realising that she could never take my grandmother’s place, either in his heart or theirs. My mother hated her, and I have often wondered whether she ever forgave her father.

Grandad s.jpeg
My grandfather, George

 

He wasn’t a large part of our lives, although he wrote, and sent presents and cards. We lived abroad all through my childhood and into my teens, so we rarely saw him, apart from my elder brother who, at school in England, spent the shorter holidays with them if it wasn’t feasible to come home. When my family finally moved back to England, he would come to stay two or three times a year, but his wife never came at all, and if anyone referred to her ever, is was as ‘Aunt’.

I grew up loving him and hating ‘Aunt’ for the hurts she had inflicted on my mother, but it is only as an adult, looking back, that I have sensed the uncharted territory that surrounded my childishly simple emotions. The complexities of family relationships are unfathomable, and the difficulties that lay between my mother and her father are no exception. Difficulties that have never been discussed at home, but they have come into my mind often recently, now that my mother is frail and needy, and often very difficult herself. My sister lives only 15 minutes away from my parents, and there are times nowadays when I could wish, for her sake, that the distance was a good deal further. She and I have both had cause to ask my mother: ‘How would you have felt if Grandad had lived so close to you?’ Her lack of response has, as they say, spoken volumes.

Twins Christian Alfred Calstock ss
My mother in her grandfather’s arms, her twin in their mother’s

The other – inevitable – legacy of all this is that my grandmother has lived her whole incorporeal life on a pedestal, and – which is far worse but completely understandable – my mother has never recovered from her loss. It is heartbreaking.

I may have been painfully like my grandfather’s first and only love, but there are little things I have inherited from him too. He kept birds, apparently, in a large aviary in the garden when my mother was young. She often tells me now of the day she accidentally left the door open when she went in to feed them, and the miracle – the sense of which has never left her – that none of them flew away while she and her twin were at school, and her father was at work. Her garden birds are her only ‘pets’ now. She cherishes them, as he cherished his. And as I do mine. But then, perhaps my grandfather kept birds because Christian loved them? I guess I’ll never know.

 

You can find the latest post from my other blog, Writing from the Edge, here