Imbolc, Chandeleur and the Fête of the Marmot

Sunday in the US was Groundhog Day…I suppose that it was no great surprise, based on the winter that’s gone down this year, that the news was less than optimistic.

In France, this holiday is called la Chandeleur, Fête de la Lumière, or jour des crêpes.


Not only do the French eat a lot of crêpes on Chandeleur, but they also do a bit of fortune telling while making them. It is traditional to hold a coin in your writing hand and a crêpe pan in the other, and flip the crêpe into the air. If you manage to catch the crêpe in the pan, your family will be prosperous for the rest of the year.
There are all kinds of French proverbs and sayings for Chandeleur; here are just a few. Note the similarities to the Groundhog Day predictions made in the US and Canada:

À la Chandeleur, l’hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur.
On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens.

À la Chandeleur, le jour croît de deux heures.
On Candlemas, the day grows by two hours.

Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte.
Candlemas covered (in snow), forty days lost.

Rosée à la Chandeleur, hiver à sa dernière heure.
Dew on Candlemas, winter at its final hour.

In fact, both Chandleur and Groundhog Day have similar origins in the pagan festival of Imbolc, held in honor of the goddess Brigid (Christianized into the feast day of Saint Brigid!) It’s held halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Brigid is considered the patroness of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and especially spring. Along with these attributes, she also is associated with fire. Any type of fire symbolism, including light, candles, illumination, heat, warmth or sunrises also belong to this goddess. Arrows, bells, thresholds and doorways are also included in Brigid symbolism. Several animal correspondences are also tied to Brigid, particularly ewe, dairy cows, bees, owls and serpents.

Bees, owls, arts and crafts, fire and doorways?? It’s like I’ve found my patron saint. 🙂 It also happens to be my husband’s birthday.

I guess a lot of the symbolism of the festival is centered around pregnancy: Irish imbolc derives from the Old Irish i mbolg or”in the belly”. This refers to the pregnancy of ewes. A medieval glossary etymologizes the term as oimelc “ewe’s milk”; this is the time of the year for the onset of lactation of ewes and the lambing season.

Fire and purification were an important part of the festival. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. Often, on the eve of the festival, food and drink would be set aside for Brighid. Before going to bed, items of clothing or strips of cloth would be left outside for Brighid to bless. Ashes from the fire would be raked smooth and, in the morning, they would look for some kind of mark on the ashes as a sign that Brighid had visited.The clothes or strips of cloth would be brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection.

In addition, people would make little dolls or “Brighid’s crosses”. A Brighid’s cross consists of rushes woven into a shape similar to a swastika, with a square in the middle and four arms protruding from each corner. They were often hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brighid and protect the buildings from fire and lightning.

What? A festival about pregnancy?House fires caused by lightning? I KNOW, right??? 🙂 Uncanny!!!

Relating back to Chandleur and Groundhog Day: Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination, and there was a no ld tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens …or groundhogs, I guess? 🙂 A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:

Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
“The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.”

Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach—the divine hag of Gaelic tradition—gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she wishes 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 would be relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. At Imbolc on the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to take the form of a gigantic bird carrying sticks in her beak.

Interesting stuff!

Back here in Cournonterral, our weekend was mostly centered around celebrating Mathieu’s grand quarter century mark. My father in law’s girlfriend, Carole, and I organized a dinner at her house; raclette with potatoes and charcuterie and wild green salad with pumpkin seed oil dressing, and sparklers on apple pie for dessert. Lots of wine and champagne, including wine from the Finger Lakes, and good company. Carole invited her niece Sandrine, her husband Fos from England and their two kids, and Mathieu’s dad and sister Coralie came too!

It was really great to meet Fos. He’s from the midlands and has lived in France for fifteen years; he speaks French with the most extraordinary British accent! The kids are 100% French but speak unaccented, perfect English and perfect, unaccented French. They speak English with their dad and French with each other and their mom; it’s the most wonderful, madcap, effortless blend of language. Sandrine and Fos are both film editors, although these days he stays at home and cares for the kids, 6 and 9, while Sandrine works. They live in a renovated pub, he hand-makes watch movements on a lathe in the basement and bakes cookies, and they were just as cool as they could be. Sandrine is gorgeous in that typical French way – black hair and bangs, a peacock feather in her hair and knee high black boots. Fos has a long thin red beard like a goat and can turn a simple question : how did you get into building watches? – into a half hour epic story leading from working as a designer creating a machine that made cardboard boxes for licorice to hitch hiking Europe, living in Rotterdam in a squat and rolling joints for a living in Amsterdam, collecting watches that run off tuning forks, and ending with him happily making gears and springs in his basement.

Best of all, it was so inspiring to see how perfectly those kids have integrated the two languages. Mathieu and I really want the baby to grow up bilingual; we feel strongly that this is one of the greatest gifts we can give him (along with dual EU and US citizenship)…and we’ve worried a little about how to do that. These kids, in addition to being utterly charming, sweet, curious and beautiful, inspired me to see that it’s possible.

And the next night Mathieu’s actual birthday – we went out with all his friends and got crêpes in Montpellier, which is breathtakingly beautiful and desolate at night. So a nice end to our weekend!

I’m finishing my last week of French classes; I will continue at the community center with two or three sessions per week, and will try to pick back up with conversation exchanges at the French American center as well. But the party on Saturday, as we all switched fluidly back and forth between French and English; it was a big encouragement and a snapshot, I hope, of the future!

A joyous Imbolc to you all! With school ending I’m hoping to be able to put some more time into the blog and to opening my Etsy store to start selling some of the knit and crocheted items I’ve been working on, so lots to look forward to!

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2 thoughts on “Imbolc, Chandeleur and the Fête of the Marmot

  1. Great news from you as well as an interesting history lesson. As usual, Laurie TRIUMPHS! Please wish Mathieu a happy quarter century!!!

  2. Loved your telling of the multi-language gathering. Some day that story will be told again, but it will be of you. Mathieu and your little one. It takes awhile, but it will come!

    Our birthday wishes to Mathieu for a wonderful year ahead!

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