Monday, 14 February 2011

Lupercalia - theTrue Orgins of St. Valentines Day

(I found this fabulous article about the origins of Valentines Day which is connected to an ancient pagan festival known as Lupercalia. Its a fascinating read with lots of great information on all kinds of things including the origin of the card and chocolate giving rituals. )

Lupercalia is uniquely Roman, but even the Romans of the first century were at a loss to explain exactly which deity or deities were being exalted. It hearkens back to the days when Rome was nothing more than a few shepherds living on a hill known as Palantine and was surrounded by wilderness teeming with wolves.

Lupercus, protector of flocks against wolves, is a likely candidate; the word lupus is Latin for wolf, or perhaps Faunus, the god of agriculture and shepherds. Others suggest it was Rumina, the goddess whose temple stood near the fig tree under which the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. There is no question about Lupercalia's importance. Records indicate that Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. He chose the Lupercalia festival of the year 44BC as the proper time to offer the crown to Julius Caesar.

According to legend, the story of Romulus and Remus begins with their grandfather Numitor, king of the ancient Italian city of Alba Longa. He was ousted by his brother Amulius. Numitor's daughter, Rhea Silvia, was made a Vestal Virgin by Amulius and forbidden to marry since her children would be rightful heir to the throne. Mars, the god of war, fell in love with her and she gave birth to twin sons.

Fearing that the boys would grow up and seek revenge, Amulius had them placed in a basket and thrown into the freezing flooded waters of the River Tiber. When the waters receded, the basket came ashore on Palantine Hill. They were found by a she-wolf who, instead of killing them, nurtured and nourished them with her milk. A woodpecker, also sacred to Mars, brought them food as well.

The twins were later found by Faustulus, the king's shepherd. He and his wife adopted and named them Romulus and Remus. They grew up to be bold, strong young men, and eventually led a band of shepherds in an uprising against Amulius, killing him and rightfully restoring the kingdom to their grandfather.

Deciding to found a town of their own, Romulus and Remus chose the sacred place where the she-wolf had nursed them. Romulus began to build walls on Palatine Hill, but Remus laughed because they were so low. Remus mockingly jumped over them, and in a fit of rage, Romulus killed his brother. Romulus continued the building of the new city, naming it Roma after himself.

February occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today so Lupercalia was held in the spring and regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. Each year on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on Palantine Hill at the cave of Lupercal. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to the fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk.

The youths then donned loincloths made from the skin of the goat and led groups of priests around the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city, and around the base of the hills of Rome. The occasion was happy and festive. As they ran about the city, the young men lightly struck women along the way with strips of the goat hide. It is from these implements of purification, or februa, that the month of February gets its name. This act supposedly provided purification from curses, bad luck, and infertility.

Long after Palentine HIll became the seat of the powerful city, state and empire of Rome, the Lupercalia festival lived on. Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain. One of these was a lottery where the names of available maidens were placed in a box and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love - for the duration of the festival, or sometimes longer.

As Christianity began to slowly and systematically dismantle the pagan pantheons, it frequently replaced the festivals of the pagan gods with more ecumenical celebrations. It was easier to convert the local population if they could continue to celebrate on the same days... they would just be instructed to celebrate different people and ideologies..

Lupercalia, with its lover lottery, had no place in the new Christian order. In the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. The church decided to come up with its own lottery and so the feast of St. Valentine featured a lottery of Saints. One would pull the name of a saint out of a box, and for the following year, study and attempt to emulate that saint.

Confusion surrounds St Valentine's exact identity. At least three Saint Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of February 14th. One is described as a priest in Rome, another as a Bishop of Interamna, now Terni in Italy, and the other lived and died in Africa.

The Bishop of Interamna is most widely accepted as the basis of the modern saint. He was an early Christian martyr who lived in northern Italy in the third century and was put to death on February 14th around 270 AD by the orders of Emperor Claudius II for disobeying the ban on Christianity. However, most scholars believe Valentine of Terni and the priest Valentine of Rome were the same person.

Claudius' Rome was an extremely dangerous place to be Christian. Valentine not only chose to be a priest, but was believed to have been a leader of the Christian underground movement. Many priests were caught, one by one and imprisoned and martyred. Valentine supposedly continued to preach the word after he was imprisoned, witnessing to the prisoners and guards.

One story tells that he was able to cure a guard’s daughter of blindness. When word got back to Claudius, he was furious and ordered Valentine’s brutal execution – beaten by clubs until dead, and then beheaded. While he was waiting for the soldiers to come and drag him away, Valentine composed a note to the girl telling her that he loved her. He signed it simply, "From Your Valentine." The execution was carried out on February 14th.

Another legend touts of a well loved priest called Valentine living under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. Rome was constantly engaged in war. Year after year, Claudius drafted male citizens into battle to defend and expand the Roman Empire. Many Romans were unwilling to go. Married men did not want to leave their families. Younger men did not wish to leave their sweethearts. Claudius ordered a moratorium on all marriages and that all engagements must be broken off immediately.

Valentine disagreed with his emperor. When a young couple came to the temple seeking to be married, Valentine secretly obliged them. Others came and were quietly married. Valentine became the friend of lovers in every district of Rome. But such secrets could not be kept for long. Valentine was dragged from the temple. Many pleaded with Claudius for Valentine's release but to no avail, and in a dungeon, Valentine languished and died. His devoted friends are said to have buried him in the church of St. Praxedes on the 14th of February.

The Feast of St. Valentine and the saint lottery lasted for a couple hundred years, but the church just couldn't rid the people's memory of Lupercalia. In time, the church gave up on Valentine all together. Protestant churches don't recognize saints at all, and very few Catholic churches choose to celebrate or observe the life of St. Valentine on a 'Valentine's Sunday'. The lottery finally returned to coupling eligible singles in the 15th century. The church attempted to revive the saint lottery once again in the 16th century, but it never caught on.

During the medieval days of chivalry, the single's lottery was very popular. The names of English maidens and bachelors were put into a box and drawn out in pairs. The couple exchanged gifts and the girl became the man's valentine for a year. He wore her name on his sleeve and it was his bounded duty to attend and protect her. The ancient custom of drawing names on the 14th of February was considered a good omen for love.

Arguably, you could say the very first valentine cards were the slips of paper bearing names of maidens the early Romans first drew. Or perhaps the note Valentine passed from his death cell. The first modern valentine cards are attributed to the young French Duke of Orleans. He was captured in battle and held prisoner in the Tower of London for many years. He was most prolific during his stay and wrote countless love poems to his wife. About sixty of them remain. They are among the royal papers in the British Museum.

By the 17th century, handmade cards had become quite elaborate. Pre-fabricated ones were only for those with means. In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained suggested sentimental verses for the young lover suffering from writer's block. Printers began producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the practice of mailing valentines.

This made it possible to exchange cards anonymously and suddenly, racy, sexually suggestive verses started appearing in great numbers, causing quite a stir among prudish Victorians. The number of obscene valentines caused several countries to ban the practice of exchanging cards. Late in the nineteenth century, the post office in Chicago rejected some twenty-five thousand cards on the grounds that they were not fit to be carried through the U.S. mail.

The first American publisher of valentines was printer and artist Esther Howland. Her elaborate lace cards of the 1870’s cost from five to ten dollars, some as much as thirty-five dollars. Since then, the valentine card business has flourished. With the exception of Christmas, Americans exchange more cards on Valentine’s Day than at any other time of year.

One of Estar Howlands first Valentine Cards

Chocolate entered the Valentine's Day ritual relatively late. The Conquistadors brought chocolate to Spain in 1528 and while they knew how to make cocoa from the beans, it wasn't until 1847 that Fry & Sons discovered a way to make chocolate edible. Twenty years later, the Cadbury Brothers discovered how to make chocolate even smoother and sweeter. By 1868, the Cadburys were turning out the first boxed chocolate. They were elaborate boxes made of velvet and mirrors and retained their value as trinket-boxes after the chocolate was gone. Richard Cadbury created the first heart-shaped Valentine's Day box of candy sometime around 1870.

The ultimate romantic couple....Romeo and Juliet

© 2007 Wendy Brinker

Linking to Cindy's Show and Tell Friday

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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Imbolc/Candlemas/St Brigids Day

Imbolc (also Imbolg or Oimelc), or St Brigid’s Day (Scots Gaelic Là Fhèill Brìghde, Irish Lá Fhéile Bríde, the feast day of St. Brigid), is an Irish festival marking the beginning of spring. It was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid, who was later Christianised as St. Brigid.
 Most commonly it is celebrated on February 1 or 2 (or February 12, according to the Old Calendar), which falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere.

Imbolc is the festival of the lactating sheep. It is derived from the Gaelic word "oimelc" which means "ewes milk". Herd animals have either given birth to the first offspring of the year or their wombs are swollen and the milk of life is flowing into their teats and udders. It is the time of Blessing of the seeds and consecration of agricultural tools. It marks the center point of the dark half of the year. It is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal and in many places the first Crocus flowers begin to spring forth from the frozen earth.

The Maiden is honored as the Bride on this Sabbat. Straw corn dollies are created from oat or wheat straw and placed in baskets with white flower bedding. Young girls then carry them door to door, and gifts are bestowed upon the image from each household. Afterwards at the traditional feast, the older women make special acorn wands for the dollies to hold. Brighid's Crosses are fashioned from wheat stalks and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year. Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and a besom(broom) is place by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new. Candles are lit and placed in each room of the house to honor the re-birth of the Sun.

Another traditional symbol of Imbolc is the plough. In some areas, this is the first day of ploughing in preparation of the first planting of crops. A decorated plough is dragged from door to door, with costumed children following asking for food, drinks, or money. Should they be refused, the household is paid back by having its front garden ploughed up. In other areas, the plough is decorated and then Whiskey, the "water of life" is poured over it. Pieces of cheese and bread are left by the plough and in the newly turned furrows as offerings to the nature spirits. It is considered taboo to cut or pick plants during this time

The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearth fires, special foods (butter, milk, and bannock, for example), divination or watching for omens, and candles or a bonfire if the weather permits. Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather predicting and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens is a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day.

Imbolc is the day the Cailleach — the hag of Gaelic tradition — gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people are generally relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.

Fire and purification are an important aspect of this festival. Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bríde, Brigit, Brìd) is the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smith craft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.

Brigid is said to walk the earth on Imbolc eve. Before going to bed, each member of the household may leave a piece of clothing or strip of cloth outside for Brigid to bless. The head of the household will smother (or "smoor") the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they look for some kind of mark on the ashes, a sign that Brigid has passed that way in the night or morning. The clothes or strips of cloth are brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection

Brigit's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lighted on the beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their special holiday. The Roman Church was quick to confiscate this symbolism as well, using 'Candlemas' as the day to bless all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year. (Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St. Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc.)


Symbolism: purity, growth and renewal, the reunion of the Goddess and the God, fertility, dispensing of the old and making way for the new.

Foods: dairy products, curries, onions, chives, seeds, herbal tea, mutton or lamb, poppy seed cakes, muffins, scones, and breads, onions, garlic, raisins, spiced wines.

Herbs: angelica, basil, bay laurel, blackberry, celandine, colts foot, heather, iris, myrrh, tansy, violets, and all white or yellow flowers.

Incense and oils: angelica, blackberry, iris, myrrh, vanilla.

Colors: white, yellow, light green.

Stones: amethyst, bloodstone, garnet, ruby, onyx, turquoise.

Animals: robins, burrowing animals, sheep, lambs, deer

Decorations: candles, lamps, brooms, yellow flowers, Brigid's Crosses, priapic wands (acorn-tipped), evergreens.

Traditional activities: a besom is placed by the front door to symbolize sweeping out the old and welcoming the new, candle lighting, searching for signs of spring, making Bride's Beds, making priapic wands, feasting, spring cleaning.

Spell/ritual work: blessing of seeds for this year's garden, fertility and purification, consecration of agricultural tools, initiation, transformation, beginnings.

Explore some of the ways you can add folk practices into your Imbolc celebration.

Imbolc is a festival of purification and a celebration of the first signs of spring. It is the time when the milk begins to engorge the udders of the livestock in preparation for the first births of spring. It is an important date in the beginning of the agricultural year. Preparations for spring sowing, hiring of farm workers for the coming season, fishermen taking out their boats after staying in for the winter season, seaweed gathering on the coast to be used for fertilizer, and the gathering of shellfish all begin at that this time. The larder of the housewife and the hay stores of the farmer were also checked to make sure that only half had been consumed.

Most of the elements of the traditional celebration can be seen, as referring to sexual intercourse and fertility: the men, having the charge of making the "little Brid doll" often from the phallic dasher of a churn; the women preparing the "bed" for the don; the churning of butter; the emphasis on birth and milking; and the use of straw, which was the traditional material for the birthing bed for human and beast alike, etc.

In folk practice, it appears mostly as a holiday centered on the household, but it can easily be turned into a community celebration as well. Below are some customs that have long been associated with this sacred holiday. Feel free to modify them to match your needs and the particulars of your family and community.

Spring Cleaning

This is the time to give your home a good thorough cleaning in preparation for a visit from Brigit. If you happen to have a fireplace, it especially should be cleaned very well. As a part of the magical purification of the house a birch branch should be used to symbolically sweep the floors. Birch has strong associations with Brigit, and has long been used for rites of purification and new beginnings.

All of this work should be completed prior to the eve of Imbolc, when a small dish of butter should be placed on a windowsill and a fresh fire kindled in the hearth or a candle lit in honor of Brigit.

Making the Brideog

If possible (and applicable) this work should be done by the man of the household or a group of men in your grove. Long pieces of straw or rushes should be gathered and fashioned into the shape of a doll. The image should be dressed in white doll clothing or merely wrapped in a white cloth in the manner of a dress. Her image should be decorated with bits of greenery, early flowers, shells and pretty stones. An especially pretty shell should be placed over her heart. For the greatest magical effect, the doll can be built around the handle of an old butter chum dasher. When finished, she should be consecrated with a few sprinkles of sacred water while invocations to Brigit are spoken. The resulting effigy is called a Brideog (BREE-JOG), or "little Brid" and is an important component of the traditional Imbolc celebration.

Brigit's Crosses

This is the most widely practiced custom associated with Imbolc. Following the making of the Brideog, the extra straw should be gathered up and saved, for use at the family or grove feast on the eve of Imbolc. For the best results, the straw should be soaked in water for a couple of days prior to the feast. Pan of that evening should be devoted to making Brigit's Crosses. These are weavings of straw that can be as simple as a few strands or amazingly elaborate. Most folks are familiar with the three or four-armed variety but there is a great number of different regional patterns including what most people in America know as a "God's Eye" pattern woven around two sticks. At the end of the evening each person should take their cross home, sprinkle it with a bit of sacred water and speak a request of Brigit for blessing and protection of the home and family members. Old crosses from previous years should be moved to the rafters or attic of your home, and the new crosses hung in their place near the entryways to the dwelling. Crosses that were woven by the children should be hung on the wall over their beds, and if you happen to have a barn or out-building you should hang one there as well. They are especially effective in protecting the household and its inhabitants from fire and lightening.

Throughout the year, the crosses may be taken down temporarily when a Brigit blessing is needed: the a healing of a sick child; tucking between the mattresses to assist in conception; placed upon a basket of seed being carried out to the garden for planting, etc.


The eve of Imbolc is the best time of the year to perform divination's specifically pertaining to the future welfare and prosperity of your family.

Imbolc Feast

On the eve of Imbolc, a family or community feast should be held. When all is prepared, and the table is set, the persons who were involved in the making of the Brideog should go outside and retrieve her. The doll should be placed on the outside of the building next to the open door. The men should get on their knees before the doll (the traditional gesture of respect for the Brideog) and shout into the house, "Go on your knees, open your eyes, and admit Brigit!" The celebrants inside should answer, "Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to the holy woman!" The Brideog should then be carried into the house and leaned against a leg of the feasting table. Begin the feast with a prayer of thanks.

Brid's Bed

As the evening of the Imbolc feast winds down, the women of the household or grove should gather up the last of the straw and fashion an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle called "leaba Brid" (LAWA BREE) or "the bed of Brid". Place the bed near the hearth If you have one. Then place the Brideog into the bed and place a small straight wand of birch with the bark peeled in the bed beside the figure. This wand is called "slatag Brid" (SLAH-TAHG BREE) or "'the little wand of Brid. If you have burned a fire during the evening the ashes of the fire should be scraped smooth. In the morning check the ashes for marks of Brigit's wand or better yet, her footprint to prove that she had visited during the night. If no marks are found, burn some incense in the hearth or near the spot where the bed was placed, as an offering.

Brideog Procession

This is a special type of procession similar to caroling that members of your grove can do on the eve of Imbolc (or one of the preceding nights if necessary). Arrangements should be made ahead of time so that people can sign up for a visit and know what to expect. They should also be advised that it is best to do the spring cleaning before the Brideog visits. Assemble a company of participants, called "Biddy's" or Brideogs and prepare the songs for the event. Take the Brideogs from house to house to offer blessings and entertainment to the families who live mere. Dressing in unusual clothes and wearing funny hats will add to the fun of the event and, is quite traditional. A young lady, traditionally the prettiest of the crowd, should be selected to carry the Brigit doll.

When you arrive, ask for admittance to the house (it is considered very bad luck to be uncivil to a Brideog) and everyone should file in. Entertain the household with a couple of songs (traditionally song, rhymes and music on flute, violin, and later, accordion were used) and recite a prepared Brigit blessing for them. If the household does not already have one, they should be presented with a Brigit's cross for protection and blessings through the year. Before going, the family should present the Brideogs with an item of food, especially one associated with dairy, to be used at the community feast (or as an alternative you can collect non-perishable food items for a homeless shelter).

Blessing of the Brat Brid

During the day before Imbolc, the woman of the house or women of the grove should take a small piece of cloth (larger if it is for the entire grove) and lay it on a bush outside. During the night, as the goddess roams to bless the houses of her followers, she will pass by, touching and blessing the cloth. Collect the cloth in the morning and tear it into small pieces. These pieces of doth, individually called a Brat Brid (BRAHT BREE]), should be distributed among the children and females of the household. The Brat Brid will give them protection throughout the year where ever they go. These pieces of cloth may be sewn into the clothes or jackets of the children to insure that it won't be lost.

Blessing the Bratach Brid

The Bratach Bree (BRAH-TOCK BREE) is a large piece of cloth, such as a shawl that Brigit will bless in the same fashion as the Brat Brid. Instead of being torn into pieces on the next day this cloth should be kept as a sacred relic and charged repeatedly year after year. The Bratach Brid can become quite powerful over time and can be used to help insure safe childbirth and to cure sterility by placing it over the patient and asking for Brigit's help. It was once fairly standard equipment for country midwives in Ireland. In addition to being used for human mothers during childbirth it was also spread across the back of birthing cows to ensure the health of the calves and an abundant supply of milk.


Carmichael. Alexander, Carmina Gadelica Hymns & Incantations, ed. C. J. Moore, Edinburgh; Books. 1992

Danaher, Kevin, The Year In Ireland, Irish Calendar Customs, Minneapolis: Mercier Press, 1972

O Cathainn, Seamas, The Festival of Brigit, Celtic Goddess & Holy Woman, Dublin: DBA Publications Ltd., 1995

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage, Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, London: Thames and Hudson, 1961


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