Imbolc, Brighid, Mary and B-Day

February 1st and 2nd are important dates.

Or certainly used to be in this part of the world. February 1st being the ancient Celtic festival date for Imbolc, when winter was considered to be passing into spring. A word of old Gaelic origin, which derives from the Irish i imbolg, meaning “out of the belly, or womb”, it used to be celebrated on February 1st and was one of the four major seasonal marker dates in the Celtic world. The others being Beltane (May 1st), Lughnasadah (August 1st), and Samhain (November 1st). Imbolc celebrated the female Celtic fertility goddess Brighid.

In Ireland, at Imbolc, simple Brighid’s crosses were made of a doll-like figure of Brighid, called a Brídeóg, and would be carried from house-to-house. Brighid was said to visit one’s home at Imbolc. To receive her blessings, people would make a bed for Brighid and leave her food and drink, while items of clothing would be left outside for her to bless. Brighid was also invoked to protect livestock, and the festival might even have coincided with the birth of the first lambs. 

The period of Celtic dominance in Britain ran from roughly 500 BC to the arrival of the Romans in Britain in about 50 AD, and Imbolc would have been cause for such pagan ritual celebrations on February 1st, with feasts, candles, weather divination and many local variations in customs. Little did I know of the fearsome reputation of the warmongering Celts, (carrying severed heads as tokens of their success, for example) when I competed fiercely and nobly against the Saxons, Normans and Vikings in the house competitions at Prestfelde.Click here and here for more details of Celtic culture and history. 

What’s interesting, is that around the time that Christianity reached the shores of Britain and Ireland, there’s some doubt as to what happened next, as far as Imbolc is concerned. Brighid seems to have become Christianised, and replaced by Saint Brig(h)id, or Brigid, or Bridget. Imbolc gradually lost its prominence, and became known as the Feast of Saint Brigid, though curiously the term Imbolc is still used in celebrations in Ireland to this day. Click here for more. And here for much more on just who Saint Brigid of Kildare was.

Galanthus ‘Kildare’ below.

Meanwhile across the Irish sea over here in, (then), catholic Wales, the Festival of Candlemas(s) was celebrated on February 2nd, commemorating the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, as ‘Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau’.

I’ve yet to be able to glean much information on this Welsh festival of ‘Mary and the Candles’. My hope is that at some point in my Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt, someone will enlighten me, or give me some links to follow up. But such a festival would probably have been suppressed after the time of the British reformation, and after listening to the excellent recent BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” programme on the subject of Owain Glyndwr (click here to listen), I was struck by how little hard, factual information was ever written down in Wales around that time. And if it was, untranslated, it would anyway defeat me.

However, thoughts of Candlemas, Imbolc and snowdrops have been ever present of late, as I try to fine tune my thoughts and images for the new talk which will get an airing, or two, very shortly.

Anyway, the weather and sights which I’ve captured in these first 4 days of February, have very much hinted at a time of change in the seasons.

The bird behaviour has increased. The occasional green yaffle has gone, replaced by early morning Greater Spotted drumming. Crows and Kites are more active, aerobatically sparring into the distance.

The heron senses spawning time is nigh, flies in, then on, spying danger. To poach at a different, safer venue.The sparrows are chattering expectantly once more. Rabbits and foxes have moved into the magic terrace garden, though not quite at the same time.


And all this in spite of minus 10 degrees C temperatures, snow, hail and ice for a few days.

Then, dramatically, an influx of mild Atlantic air brought overnight rain, and after midday on the 4th, the sun shone. With winds still from the North, it couldn’t be described as warm, but just the day earlier, I’d picked up a significant temperature rise as I walked into this Western section of our copse garden. 

Sheltered from the North by the higher ground and bordering shrubs of our mossy croquet lawn, and now also sheltered from the East, by evergreen Camellias, Daphne and Rhododendrons, which are well over shoulder high, there are two large areas of spring bulbs which receive any sunshine on offer, between about noon and 3 pm. Having abandoned my third layer of clothing to do some hand pollinating of open Crocus flowers in these areas, I was sufficiently struck by the warmer temperatures to go inside and drag Fiona out to experience them.

There was no bee activity at all on February 3rd, with ice around in most other areas and the ground still frozen hard, yet the early white Crocus chrysanthus ‘Ard Schenk’, were indeed wide open in these benign pockets of warmer air, with obvious loose pollen inside a few flowers. A few Crocus tommasinianus grown from seed scattered along the cobbles at the very front of the house were the only other Crocus which could manage to open, anywhere else in the garden.

On the 4th, having checked the morning weather forecasts, I was ready to have a look at the hive once the sun broke through the clouds, just before 12.30 pm. Masses of milling bees, but no sign of any actually moving away from the hive, and visiting flowers in the garden.

However, by 1.45 pm, it was a different story. At last I found a couple of honeybees inside a snowdrop, above the croquet lawn, with collected pollen – interestingly this was a local form of G. nivalis.Then another one, inside a rather sad looking Hellebore, hit by those earlier very low temperatures.Finally, I headed down past the massed Cyclamen coum and into the lower copse.The bees had very quickly discovered that this was where the real action was, and this small area of the garden was audibly buzzing with hundreds of bees collecting pollen and nectar from all the plants I knew would be visited, given benign weather. With great delight I also discovered, for the first time, masses were visiting the exquisitely scented flowers of Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill, which we’re now very fortunate to have growing in a few thickets.

This was such a memorable moment, and will sustain me, and hopefully the bees, for many more days. Might we even get some Daphne berries this year?

When will the next B-Day, or more correctly B-Hour, arrive in our upland garden?

Within an hour the bees had all returned to base, pollen bags in orange and cream to be packed away, nectar regurgitated, leaving the garden a quieter and less exciting place.

The one regret is that there weren’t any bee visits to the many Cyclamen coum, so I’m afraid the paintbrush will still be needed for these.

But it does highlight the benefit of growing many of these early flowering spring bulbs, and also that where they’re sited is really important. All our more “special” snowdrops in their East facing, slightly more exposed location, simply never got warm enough to attract any bee visitors. Galanthus ‘Imbolc’, below, first found in the garden of the galanthophile extraordinaire, Primrose Warburg.

G. “Primrose Warburg”, below.

So, February has already seen extreme weather oscillations, and we’re still only in the first week.

Has the divine Imbolc hag, the Cailleach, had the right sort of weather to gather enough firewood, I wonder? Will winter return?

Click here.

And watch this space.


13 thoughts on “Imbolc, Brighid, Mary and B-Day

  1. Your bees are so lucky to have such a choice of flowers to visit so early in the year. I cannot understand why your crocus and snowdrops are always so far ahead of mine – given my more clement climate. It is only my first crocus that are just through now and I never see a snowdrop before the end of January. Any ideas? Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      I’m sure its all down to which cultivars/species you’re growing – our original snowdrops from Gloucestershire are only just coming out and we had a half hour drive today to reach a property and saw no snowdrops en route – yet in our high altitude spot we’re well over 2 hundred different forms of snowdrops out now, including many Welsh collected forms. Yet many of the Welsh origin snowdrops from Pembrokeshire are barely above ground still. It’s a point I’m trying to stress in my talk – everyone thinks snowdrops, or indeed crocus are all the same. From flowering time perspective as in other ways, they’re not! And that makes a big difference in getting flowers for bees early in the year.

      If you want a really early Crocus, then get some C. sieberi “Firefly” – they hardly ever open here, but the first are nearly always out by Jan 1st, and last for a good 6 weeks – then one like Blue Pearl will be appearing, and all the Crocuses in my post are ones I’ve grown from hand pollinating any early flowering ones ( mainly C. tommosinianus, and forms of C. chrysanthus), and scattering the seeds…

      If you want a really early snowdrop then try to get some Galanthus nivalis “Llo ‘n Green”. It’s a vigorous form with faint green lines on the tips of the outer petals….and is from the llo gorge in France!!

      So cultivar type is way more important than where you are, I reckon 🙂
      Best wishes

  2. Wonderful photos as usual…love that Primrose Warburg..what a cutey! Bees have been buzzing here too- sadly in our bedroom (not too many!) ! The bees are under our tiles and somehow or other get into our bedroom but hey…it shows it’s getting warmer and they were all out visiting the flowers in the garden too! As soon as it chilled they flew home…under the tiles!

    • Thanks Marianne,
      How fortunate you are to have happy bees in the roof! So long as they mainly stay there!
      I fear they’ll all be inside though now for a few days having seen the forecast wind speeds!
      Batten down the hatches,
      best wishes
      PS Primrose warburg is really pretty and moreover she sets quite a lot of seed – relative to many others, at least if you pollinate the flowers! 🙂 One day I’ll manage a photo with the flowers wide open!
      Best wishes

  3. Beautiful wintery landscapes and early spring flowers.
    In the land of the Gaels, the start of February is wrapped up in a tange of myths from storm hags to fertility goddesses. It is part of our rich cultural heritage and to me seems to be an integral part of the landscape.

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