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Celtic Well> E-Journal> Imbolc

Coins hammered into bark(Left, sometimes pilgrims hammer coins into the bark of a tree instead of tying clooties onto them. Photo © 1999 Shae Clancy.)

Imbolc in Wales

By Hilaire Wood

Although St Brigit is said to have floated on a piece of turf over to Wales, where she is known as Sant Ffraid and has several churches and wells dedicated to her, the festival of early Spring is not connected with her as it is in Scotland and Ireland.

Candlemas on February 2nd was celebrated as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau (Mary’s Festival of the Candles), the popular name of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. It was derived from the pre-Reformation ceremony of blessing the candles and distributing them to be carried in a procession. However, just as this Christian ceremony drew on pagan festivals connected with the coming of the Spring, some of the old practices carried on in parts of Wales until this century suggest older rituals. In one ceremony in Carmarthenshire, all the panes in the small kitchen window were illuminated with candles. In another, the mistress of the farm ceremoniously gave y forwyn fawr, the head maid, a lighted candle for use in the outhouses sometime in the autumn. The name for this period when working by candlelight was allowed was amser gwylad, the time of keeping vigil. The candle was then handed back on February 2nd when the light had increased enough for candles to be dispensed with and the farm animals to be fed before dark.

As with most of the festivals of the year, rites of divination were carried out at Candlemas. In one recorded instance it was customary for people to light two candles, and place them on a table or high bench. Then each member of the family in turn would sit down on a chair between the candles and take a drink out of a horn goblet or beaker. Afterwards they would throw the vessel over their head and if it fell in an upright position, the person who threw it would live to reach a very old age; if it fell bottom up, the person would die early.

That ‘drink’, usually beer was associated with Candlemas, is also suggested by a 17th century wassail song which commemorates the festival in the following stanzas:

    Roedd yn ddefod mynd a gwirod A gwyryfon o’r cwmpason
    Gwyl fair forwyn ddechre gwanwyn Ai canhwylle i gyd yn ole.

    Pob dyn dedwydd, trwy lawenydd Puredigaeth Mair yn odieth,
    A garo goffa Mair merch Anna... Pawb ai wirod iw chyfarfod.

    Fe aned i hon fab Duw Cyfion Os rhydd Duw tad ini genad
    Ddydd Nadolig Gwyl Barchedig. Ni yfwn wirod hyd y gwaelod.

    Gwyl fair hefyd sydd wyl hyfryd Ni yfwn Iechyd haelion hefyd
    Mair yn gymwys aeth i’r Eglwys. Heb fod mor son am gybyddion. . .

(It was a custom to bear drink at the Festival of the Virgin Mary at the beginning of Spring. Every happy man loves to remember with joy Mary the daughter of Anna...To her was born the Son of the Just God on Christmas Day, revered festival. Mary went meetly to the church, with virgins from the locality, their candles all alight. The purification of Mary, all with their drink meeting her. If God the Father gives us permission, we shall drink to the dregs. We shall drink the Health of the generous without any mention of misers. . .)

The custom of wassailing involved wishing for fertile crops and an increase of livestock in the coming year for those who provided the wassailers with ale. Like the ceremonies in Ireland for St Brigit’s day, the early Spring was the time to ensure protection and fertility for the crops and animals. If the sun shone on the altar on Candlemas Day it was thought that there would be an abundant harvest the following year. However, if a single crow was seen hovering or circling over a house on the eve or day of Candlemas, it was considered unlucky.

References

Trefor M. Owen. Welsh Folk Customs. Gomer Press, Llandysul 1987

Marie Trevelyan. Folklore and Folk Stories of Wales. EP Publishing Ltd, Wakefield 1973

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