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MARTHA SEZ: Cheer up with a pagan holiday

February 6, 2014
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

My mother hated February. Had she lived somewhere in the South, I'm sure she would have felt differently, but February in Michigan depressed her.

With only 28 days, it is the shortest month, so why, she wondered, does it seem to be the longest?

But your wedding anniversary is in February, I said to her once. Why did you and Dad get married in February if you despise it so?

We got married, she said, because there is nothing else to do in February. They spent their honeymoon in New Orleans listening to jazz.

After the holidays of feasting and light that stretch from Halloween to Thanksgiving and on through New Year's Day, the remaining weeks of winter seem particularly cheerless to many of us who live way up north. It is common practice in the Adirondacks to leave up Christmas lights until Easter, for good reason.

Halloween is a pagan holiday. Why did I throw it in with "the holidays" just now? Because, even though Halloween is not generally considered as part of the so-called holiday season here in the United States, it is certainly observed and celebrated, not only by children, but increasingly by adults as well.

The ancient Gaelic holiday of Imbolc (pronounced with a silent b), which falls in early February, has not made the transition from Britain to America as successfully or dramatically as Halloween has. Perhaps, if for no other reason than to combat seasonal affective disorder - depression induced by darkness - we should pay more heed to Imbolc, or St. Bridget's day, February first.

In ancient times the Gaelic goddess Brighid represented the earliest awakenings of spring, as evidenced by the lengthening days. The early Britains depended on their flocks of sheep for food and clothing. Brighid looked over the birthing of lambs and the ewes' milk that fed them. People lit candles for Brighid to celebrate the return of daylight. They made beds for her to sleep in, put out food for her, and invited her in, to bless them as they slept. The goddess was a protectress, guarding her people against illness.

The biggest cultural event we Americans inherit from Imbolc is, surprisingly, Groundhog Day. Bridghid was a seer, adept at divination. The ancient Britains attempted to foretell how many weeks of winter remained by interpreting the behavior of badgers and snakes, who were said to emerge from their holes on Imbolc. I don't know whether they were any more accurate than "The Farmer's Almanac" in their predictions, but Bridghid's day has come down to us as Groundhog's Day.

The goddess Bridghid proved herself to be very adaptable as she changed her identity to St. Bridget with the Christianization of Britain. She is, along with St. Patrick, one of the patron saints of Ireland.

Groundhog Day, though, is not one of our major holidays. I mean, who can even understand it? Groundhog Day can carry no weight whatsoever with those who, like my mother, hate February. It simply isn't enough. And not everyone can just get married and go to New Orleans, the way my parents did.

Which brings us - by a circuitous route, admittedly - to Valentine's Day, another pagan Gaelic holiday with a Christian saint's name. If you missed Imbolc, you still have time to prepare for Valentine's Day.

Still depressed? Another good choice is to buy a lot of really good chocolate and eat it all yourself. There is absolutely no reason to feel bad about doing this. I am sure that plenty of ancient pagans did this all the time.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Even bigger in our national culture - looming so large that I almost couldn't see it - is Super Bowl Sunday!

Super Bowl Sunday is many things. It's a feast day, a sort of martial holiday, pitting two teams of enemy combatants against each other to battle it out like Roman gladiators for the pleasure of the crowd. It is also a national feast day, when people prepare all of their favorite comfort foods, with nary a nod to either tradition or health concerns. Sausage? Beef? Sour cream? Chips? Fine. Anything you want. It is also the day when we watch the very finest advertisements for American products that the advertising industry has to offer. The Super Bowl is all-American, and, as such, very good for our economy.

So you see, February isn't all bad. And afterward comes March, with St. Patrick's Day. So hold on, light a candle, send a valentine, and have a good month.



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