Almost exactly a year ago, two little thoroughbred foals were born at Highclere, both bright chestnut, with white markings and bright eyes. The first one was swiftly nicknamed Bonny and the second one Ginger. These, of course, are not their racing names which we are still happily debating but a favourite, at least on my part, is Bella Notte meaning beautiful night, which relates to one of the sires – Twilight Son. When the foals were born the weather was cold but not as snowy as today, nevertheless it was midwinter – near Candlemas.
Candlemas is amongst the oldest feasts of the Christian church, taking place forty days after Christmas day which is February 2nd. Officially it marks the ritual presentation of the baby Jesus to God but it is also the celebration of light. It was on this day that all the Church’s candles were blessed for the following year. Today, in most countries, we take electric lights for granted yet they have only been in our homes for such a short time, perhaps 120 years at most. Maggie Smith of course, as the Dowager Lady Grantham, marked their arrival with the comment “Such a glare” shading her eyes with her fan.
Geordie’s grandfather would famously declare that all the lights were to be turned off immediately after dinner to save electricity. Robert the Butler would then arrive bearing an array of torches on a silver tray in order for the guests to be able to find their way upstairs to bed.
It is easy to forget the importance and value of candles and the very real difference between light and dark. In 2019, candles are a wonderful treat, throwing flickering lights, often accompanied by soothing scents, and leaving flattering shadows around rooms and faces. When extinguished, they lead to darkness and our minds and bodies know to relax and sleep.
In pre-Christian times, February 2nd was the festival of light because it was the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox. Thus on Candlemas many people placed lighted candles in their windows to scare away evil spirits that may have been present on the dark winter nights.
There are other superstitions as well. Being British the best known one is about the weather:
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again”
Apparently if someone brings snowdrops into the house on Candlemas day, it symbolises a parting or death. I am not exactly sure how this superstition works as Snowdrops were once called Candlemas Bells and, as a symbol of purity and light, they were brought into churches on this day.
In older churchyards you will still find drifts of snowdrops planted to supply flowers for Candlemas. We have planted some here in the park and they nestle amongst the curled up brown leaves like tiny white lanterns. Despite their delicacy, they appear with fortitude during the harshest month of the year. Their thin long green leaves have specially hardened tips which help them break through the frozen earth, whilst their sap contains a form of antifreeze to prevent ice crystals forming.
They are a sight to behold and a promise that the days will soon be lengthening and that spring is not too far away. I wonder sometimes if we have forgotten to find such thoughts amongst the natural world around us – more of us now live in towns rather than the rural countryside and we forget what to look for. Yet without understanding and enjoying nature, I do not think we live so well. Wordsworth, one of the English romantic poets, wrote of:
“Chaste snowdrop, venturous harbinger of spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years.”
At this point in time, it does look like a possibly more challenging spring than we have had for a while but then I remember last year and the rains and think perhaps not.
Gardening is an on-going passion of Geordie’s and mine and, luckily, Easter is much later this year. Over the last few years, as well as the “Candlemas” bulbs, we have planted tens of thousands of other spring bulbs here so that ,when we open in April, the gardens will hopefully be awash with spring colour and give much pleasure in otherwise uncertain times.