History of The Month of February
Well, the thermometer in the car was showing minus five on the way to work this morning, but it’s turned into a beautiful day here at Bluestone Towers. It’s still, bright, clear, and there’s a general feeling that we’ve broken the back of winter and spring is not too far away. So, as January ebbs away and February moves into view, it’s with a sense of cheerful optimism that we once more hand over the blog reins to Bluestone’s resident historian and storyteller, Terry John…
February was the month in which our ancestors began to look forward to the Spring. Although February weather can be colder and harsher than it was at mid-winter, the daylight hours begin to lengthen and the first plants of spring push their green shoots through the icy soil.
The people who lived more than two thousand years ago in the Iron Age settlement adjacent to Bluestone’s modern Nature Trail would have celebrated the ending of the winter darkness with the great pagan festival of Imbolc. One of four important festivals that punctuated the Celtic year, Imbolc or Oimelc was a pastoral celebration connected to the coming into milk of the ewes. The name is thought to mean ‘purification’ and was perhaps associated with the pure white colour of milk. Imbolc was held on what is now the eve of 1 February and may have been intended to ward off harm that threatened the pregnant ewes and their lambs.
Imbolc was dedicated to the goddess Bride or Brigit. In later centuries, this deity seems to have been merged with the Christian Saint Brigit, abbess of Kildare, who is remembered on 1 February.
An ancient custom practised by young girls on 1 February was to wash their faces in the early morning dew in the belief that it kept their skin fresh and youthful.
The following day, 2 February, was also marked by great ceremonial. This was Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, otherwise known as ‘Mary’s Festival of the Candles’, ‘Candlemas’, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Traditionally, it was the day on which it was believed that the infant Jesus, who was 40 days old, was taken by Joseph and Mary to the temple in Jerusalem.
On this day, in the parish of Newton North, where Bluestone now stands, and in parishes across Wales, mothers who had borne children during the previous twelve months took part in candle-lit processions. As people gathered in the churches to celebrate the purification of Mary after giving birth to Jesus, candles were blessed and distributed amongst the congregation.
The blessing of the candles was discontinued after the Reformation, but the idea of marking the end of winter with lights remained a powerful one. Houses were decorated by placing burning candles in the windows – in some areas, every pane of glass was illuminated in this way. On some farms during autumn the mistress of the house gave a lighted candle to the head maid for use in the outhouses. Traditionally, the maid gave back a candle to her mistress at Candlemas. It was also believed that on 2 February all artificial lights could be dispensed with and all farm animals could be fed before dark.
Another day that was specially observed in some of the churches of Pembrokeshire was 9 February, for this was St Teilo’s Day. St Teilo was a contemporary of St David and was born in Pembrokeshire at some time in the 6th century AD. Some legends identify his birthplace as Carn Rock, an outcrop of rock in the parish of St Florence about ten miles south of Bluestone. There are many legends concerning St Teilo’s life and work, but perhaps the best known one is that, in company with St David and St Padarn, he made a journey to Jerusalem. Once there, they were asked by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who recognised them as particularly holy men, to take their places on three thrones. Two of the thrones were made of precious metals, but St Teilo chose the one made of cedar wood, demonstrating his humility. The Patriarch gave him a magical bell, which was later preserved at Llandeilo Fawr in Carmarthenshire. Teilo also visited Brittany, where he is remembered as the patron saint of horses and apple orchards. He founded a monastery at Llandeilo Fawr and was supposed to have been the second Bishop of Llandaff. When he died, three places claimed his body; Llandeilo, Llandaff and Penally in Pembrokeshire, where he spent part of his life. Miraculously, the saint’s body triplicated itself so that each site could receive a relic for burial.
Nowadays, February is the month in which we celebrate Valentine’s Day. The custom is actually much older than you might think, though it was not always marked in the modern way. The day commemorates the martyrdom of St Valentine at the hands of the Romans on 14 February 273AD. Valentine was renowned during his lifetime for his chastity, so what he would have thought of becoming the patron saint of lovers is anybody’s guess!
The commemoration of Valentine’s martyrdom became combined with the pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia, held on 15 February, in which young people of marriageable age tried to find a partner. Girls wrote their names on a piece of paper which was then placed in an urn. The boys drew out one name each and the couples paired off.
This custom of drawing lots was recorded in Britain in 1725, but was said to be practised only by ‘vulgar’ folk. Not much better was the custom of regarding the first man seen by a woman early that morning as her valentine for the day. All very well if the first person you see is the one you want, but not a comfort otherwise.
Valentine cards made of parchment existed in the 15th century, but the first written valentine message known in Britain seems to date to the 1680’s. In Wales an anonymous poem of the same period mentions a valentine’s gift. The lady concerned says that she would like to draw her lover as her valentine above all other men. She is not saying that she wants to make a sketch or picture of her love, but that she wants to draw his name in a lottery. It was quite usual to accompany a valentine with a gift, often a pair of beautifully embroidered gloves.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the type of Valentine card that we know became popular. They were usually heart shaped and were decorated with pictures of flowers, love birds and with ribbons, silk thread and paper lace. They might be accompanied by a specially baked biscuit or cake – one of the recipes is given below.
3oz (75g) flour
3oz (75g) butter
1 egg yolk
rind of half a lemon
Quarter of a teaspoon of baking powder
1 and a half oz (3.75g) sugar
Cream the butter and sugar together, add lemon rind and beat in the yolk. Add the flour and baking powder and mix. Roll out and cut into heart shapes. Bake in a hot oven (425F/220C) for 20 minutes.
As Halloween draws near, we are once again indebted to Bluestone’s resident historian and storyteller, Terry John, for stepping up to the blog plate once more with tales of customs past(and a recipe)…
Now that Christmas is over, we can all relax a little – the annual orgy of giving and receiving gifts, sending cards, eating and drinking far too much is over for another year.
It’s time once again to welcome Terry John for another seasonal sojourn through the pages of history. Over to you, Mr John…
Every year, on 14 February, we celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day. This martyred saint is chiefly remembered for one thing - that he is the patron saint of lovers. But who was Valentine, and how did he come to be associated with love and lovers?