Kadripäev and Hekate

Before I get into this week’s name days, let’s look at traditions associated with one of the old agrarian festivals of the Estonian year, kadripäev, known in some countries as St. Catherine’s Day. Kadripäev and its male counterpart mardipäev (Nov. 10) are two of Estonia’s most popular holidays after jaanipäev (June 23-24) and jõulud (Dec. 24-25, Christmas).

In Catholic countries, November 25 is the feast day of St. Catherine  of Alexandria. Estonians, who were Catholic until the Protestant Reformation, use variants of the name Catherine for this day on their name-day calendars.  The day’s names are Katariina, Katrin, Katre, Katri, Kadrin, Kadri, Kadi, Kati, Kaarin, Karn, Triin, Triina and Triinu. Finnish names for this day are Katri, Kaisa, Kaija, Katja, Kaarina, Katariina, Katriina, Kati, Kaisu and Riina.

Interestingly, there is no agreement on the origin of the name Catherine or its alternative spelling Katherine, but it could have derived from the name Hekate, an ancient goddess in the northeastern Mediterranean region. Hekate is also spelled Hecate.

The goddess Hekate

Behind the Name, a web site  that explores the etymology and history of first names, describes Catherine/Katherine as having originated “from the Greek name Αικατερινη (Aikaterine). The etymology is debated: it could derive from the earlier Greek name ‘Εκατερινη (Hekaterine), which came from ‘εκατερος (hekateros) “each of the two”; it could derive from the name of the goddess Hecate; it could be related to Greek αικια (aikia) “torture”; or it could be from a Coptic name meaning “my consecration of your name”. In the early Christian era it became associated with Greek καθαρος (katharos) “pure”, and the Latin spelling was changed from Katerina to Katharina to reflect this.” http://www.behindthename.com/name/katherine

The website Wiki.name states that “the etymology of Catherine is debated, but the earliest derivative of the name is the Greek ‘Hekaterine,’ stemming from ‘hekateros’, meaning ‘each of the two.’ It is possible Catherine shares its roots with the name Hecate, Greek goddess of the wilderness, childbirth, and crossroads”. http://wiki.name.com/en/Catherine

And like Katherine, Hekate’s name gave rise to variations used as personal names.  Robert Von Rudloff’s article, “Hekate in Early Greek Religion” notes “the popularity of personal names such as Hekataia and Hekataios based on the stem Hekat- in certain regions such as Ionia and Karia”. http://zer0dmx.tripod.com/gods/hekate.html

I would add that the Russian version of Katherine, Yekaterina, and the Bulgarian version, Ekaterina, strongly resemble the name Hekate.

Old kadripäev traditions in Estonia

Kadripäev customs in Estonia were similar to those of mardipäev, Martin’s day, Nov. 10, although the mardisandi (Martin-saints) beggars used to be predominantly male and dressed in dark clothing. The kadrisandid (Catherine-saints) beggars used to be mainly female and robed in white, although contemporary Estonian youngsters who go door to door can be either gender and wear any kind of color, costume or mask. As always, Estonians celebrate on the eve of a holiday, so the kadri beggars have their fun on the evening of November 24.

Kustas Põldmaa describes Estonian kadripäev traditions in his lovely 1976 book, published in Tallinn, Nurmelt ja Niidult (From the Fields and Meadows). He wrote that the kadrisandid raced from door to door, singing, dancing, sometimes playing instruments and wishing the farm folk good fortune for their herds. Sometimes boys accompanied them. One of the beggars, designated the kadriema, (Catherine-mother) carried a doll made of cloth, to which tooth-money was offered. The kadriisa, (Catherine-father) carried a goose-shaped figure made of straw to frighten children. To bribe the “goose” from harming the children, householders offered the kadrisandid gifts such as linens, woolens, apples, peas, honey, woven belts, gloves, stockings or kerchiefs.

Catherine’s Day was altogether a women’s holiday and linked to the protection of sheep. Herding was considered women’s work, and working was prohibited on this day. In some places sheep were honored with a ban on spinning, sewing, knitting, and shearing. Hunting wild animals and killing sheep were also prohibited. Sheep, of course, were fed especially well on this day.

No cabbage soup for you!

For some odd reason it was taboo for people to eat cabbage soup on kadripäev. Supposedly this prevented geese from eating the farm’s cabbages. http://www.slideshare.net/ylletamm/kadripev

Another custom was ritually eating porridge in the byre or shed where sheep were housed, to promote the health and fertility of the herd, writes Lauri Vahtre in Maarahva Tähtraamat, (1991) (The Earth-folks’ Almanac) which lists and explains the special days of the Estonian calendar.

The kadrisandid, as they left a farmhouse, called thank-you blessings such as the following:

Õnne talule ja talledele
Õnne karjale ja kassidele
Õnnistage teie õued täis loomasida
Laudad täis lambasida

From http://www.slideshare.net/ylletamm/kadripev

Which means:

Good luck to the farm and your lambs
Good luck to the herd and the cats
Bless your yard full of animals,
Byres full of sheep.

Along similar lines, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who lived somewhere between 750-650 BCE, wrote of Hekate: “She is good in the byre with Hermes to increase the stock. The droves of kine and wide herds of goats and flocks of fleecy sheep, if she will, she increases from a few, or makes many to be less.” From http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Greece/Mythology/en/Hecate.html

Hekate, patroness of herders

It’s interesting that Hekate, known as a patroness of herders among her many attributes, brought fertility to sheep and goats, while the kardrisandid in Estonia, celebrating a St. Catherine whose name may have originated as Hekate, wish fertility to farmers’ sheep.

Hekate is “the world’s key-bearer, never doomed to fail; in stags rejoicing, huntress, nightly seen, and drawn by bulls, unconquerable queen; Leader, Nymphe, nurse, on mountains wandering, hear the suppliants who with holy rites thy power revere, and to the herdsman with a favouring mind draw near.” – Orphic Hymn 1 to Hecate (Translated by Thomas Taylor in 1792).
http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/HekateGoddess.html

An Orthodox troparion or short hymn to St. Catherine begins with the line

“Thy lamb Catherine, O Jesus,
Calls out to thee in a loud voice”

http://orthodoxwiki.org/Catherine_of_Alexandria

Another possible link between Hekate and Katherine is their feast days. Two of Hekate’s primary feast days fall on November 16 and November 30, with St. Catherine’s feast-day falling between them on the 25th.

Could an old rural celebration like kadripäev have descended from the sheep blessing festival of an ancient Greek goddess who was the patroness of herders?  I wonder.

More name days

November 20 is the Estonian  name day for Helmar, Helmer, Helomo, Helmu, Helmur, Helmut, Helmurer and Helmust. Our close relatives the Finns mark the day’s name as Jalmari and Jari, essentially derived from the original German name, Helmar, which means famous helmet. Variants of the name Helmar are also used in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

November 21 is the name day of Pilvi and Pilve, both female names. They were  probably placed on this day because it is the feast day of St. Philemon in the Catholic Calendar of Saints. Pilvi and Pilve mean cloud, but the names certainly resemble Philemon. Estonians don’t use diphthongs such as ph and would likely pronounce the saint’s name as Pilemon. The Finnish name for the day is Hilma, which sounds somewhat like their preceding day’s name Jalmar.

November 22  is the Estonian name day for Cecilia and variations of it: Säsil, Silja, Silje and Sille, all feminine. This is the feast day of St. Cecilia, and the Finnish names for the day are Silja and Selja, also derived from Cecilia. Behind the Name writes that this is the Latin feminine form of a Roman family name, Caecilius, “which was derived from Latin caecus “blind.”  http://www.behindthename.com/name/cecilia

November 23 is the Estonian name day for the male names Clement, Leemet and Leemo, probably due to this being the feast day of St. Clement I. Behind the Name says this was the name of 14 popes and derives from the Latin name Clemens which meant “merciful, gentle.” http://www.behindthename.com/name/clement The Finns use names that sound somewhat like Clement: Lempi and Lemmikki, on the following day, Nov. 24.  Lempi means love in Finnish, and Lemmikki means little favorite one. The Estonian word lemmik also means favorite. The Finnish name for Nov. 23 is Ismo.

November 24‘s Estonian names are Ustav and Ustus, which are masculine and mean believer and faith. I don’t know why those names were selected for this day, unless there is a very slight resemblance to the martyr St. Chrysogonus.  There is a martyr, St. Justus, on Nov. 26 who seems a more likely candidate.

November 26 is the Estonian name day for Dagmar, Tamaara, Maara and Maare, all feminine names.  Again, I don’t know why those names were associated with this day, unless because of a St. Amator or St. Marcellus listed for Nov. 26 in the Catholic Calendar of Saints. But that may be stretching it a bit.

Mardipäev and soul time in Estonia

When I was a kid,  I asked my mother whether she dressed up in costumes and went trick-or-treating as a girl in Estonia. She told me – to my horror – that there was no such thing as Halloween when she was growing up.

Instead Estonian kids rubbed soot on their faces or put on a bedsheet and went knocking on a few neighbors’ doors on mardipäev (Martin’s day), though it was not widely celebrated like American Halloween.

Today, November 10, is mardipäev in Estonia.

Originally  celebrated on November 11, it honors St. Martin of Tours and is celebrated in many parts of Europe. In Estonia it was a relic from the time when Estonians were reluctant Catholics, forcibly Christianized in the 13th Century. Some time after the Protestant Reformation, however, the Estonians cleverly got back at the Roman Church by switching the date to November 10, Martin Luther’s birthday, and honoring Luther instead.

Mother didn’t get into the saints and Martin Luther business, and I didn’t care about it anyway. What I wanted to know was the burning question: did they get candy?

The horror: no candy

Of course they didn’t get candy. The poor deprived Estonian kids of the 1920s and 1930s might have gotten an apple or a few nuts from a homeowner, but certainly nothing like the Tootsie Rolls, candy corn, sticky homemade popcorn balls, candy apples, Snickers bars, lollipops, Hershey bars and other goodies that my brother and I hauled home in pillowcases after a hard evening ringing doorbells.

On trick-or-treat nights we usually brought along decorated school milk cartons to collect coins for UNICEF, and turned those in to our grade school teachers the next day. Our costumes were improvised, simple and homemade. Boys often wore  cowboy hats and carried their toy six-shooters. Girls frequently dressed as nurses or princesses. Some moms (almost nobody’s mother worked outside the home in the early 1960s) sewed or helped make their kids’ outfits.

I felt great pity for my mother and her school friends, deprived of the opportunity to devour vast quantities of candy once a year. They also missed out on the joys of Goosey Night, October 30, which is when kids in our part of North Jersey put on dark clothing and ran around ringing people’s doorbells to annoy them, or writing on car windows with soap. I presume this was intended as a warning for homeowners to stock up on candy or risk additional tricks the following night.

What on earth did they do for fun back in my mother’s childhood? I couldn’t begin to imagine.

Souls’ time – the time of the ancestors

According to various students of Estonian folklore, Martin’s day was part of a longer interval known as hingedeaeg, soul’s time, when the spirits of our ancestors and departed loved ones are near us. Some say this period began with mihklipäev, St. Michael’s Day, September 29,and concluded with kadripäev, St. Catherine’s day, November 25, or even on Christmas Eve.  Others believe the time of souls started at hingedepäev, All Souls’ Day, November 2, and ended on mardipäev, November 10.  (Let me note here that Estonians don’t capitalize the first letters of many words that we would capitalize in English. They also don’t use the word saint in mentioning a saint or saint’s day. Instead, it’s mihkel’s day, kadri’s day, martin’s day and so on.)

Soul time  is that bleak part of year when the growing season’s done,  the leaves have fallen, the nights have grown long and dark and winter is on the doorstep. Contemporary wiccans and pagans in America call this the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead grows thin, and the beloved dead walk among us.

In many cultures around the world, this is a special time to remember the departed. In Mexico, November 2 is known as Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when families create altars and deck them with colorful flowers, candles and skull shapes made from sugar.  They picnic in cemeteries, bringing the favorite foods of those they honor and love.

In Estonia, the departed are remembered throughout souls’ time rather than concentrated in a single day, according to historian Lauri Vahtre’s “Maarahva Tähtraamat”, published in 1991.  This little pamphlet describes the important days of the calendar year as observed by the maarahvas — the people of the land. Once maarahvas was what Estonians called themselves, but now it seems to include an element of paganism. Tähtraamat literally means importance-book and is a sort of calendar/almanac. The first such calendar book written in the Estonian language was called “Eesti-Ma Rahwa Kalender”, published in Tallinn in 1720. The title means Estonia-Land Folk  Calendar. It was an almanac noting feast days, the length of day and night, moon phases,  eclipses, and best days for planting, harvesting and undertaking other farm work.  Here’s a link (in Estonian) to more information about tähtraamats from the Saaremaa Museum. http://www.saartehaal.ee/2013/02/25/tahtraamat-labi-kahe-sajandi/

Ancestor worship

Vahtre  explains that the traditions of mardipäev and souls’ time developed from ancient pagan traditions of ancestor worship. All Souls’ Day, she writes, originated in 998 C.E. at the Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France and was initially only celebrated by the Benedictines. But because the annual autumnal remembrance of ancestors was widely practiced in much of Europe, the Catholic church turned that tradition into a Christian holiday.

All Saints’ Day, the church holiday preceding All Souls’ Day, is virtually unknown in Estonia. But the Tallinn city archives  show that All Souls’ was observed as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was regarded as an observance strictly for city-dwellers. The country folk, who marked the longer period called souls’ time, held specific rituals either on souls’ day or Thursdays during souls’ time. Thursday was regarded as the holy day of the week by pagan Estonians, but whether this tradition stemmed from the Taara religious cult, analogous to Scandinavian Thor worship, I do not know. Thursday is, naturally, Thor’s Day.

Fire up the saun, the ancestors are coming

The most important way to honor the ancestors was to fire up the saun (the Estonian word for sauna) and set out special foods for them, either in the saun or the house, sometimes beneath a sacred tree. The head man and woman of the household named their forebears one at a time and invited them to the feast. In return, the ancestors were asked to protect the fields and herds. At the end of souls’ time, the ancestors were thanked and wished well on their journey back.

The foods most often served to the ancestors were barley porridge, boiled meat and broth, beans and peas,  writes Kristi Salve  in an article for the Estonian website Folklore.  Link: http://www.folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/sator/sator2/Moningaid.html

Beans and peas were also traditionally served at wakes and funerals.

Interestingly, the ancient Romans and Etruscans believed that beans contained the souls of the dead. The Romans used beans and peas to invoke the manes, benevolent spirits of the dead, during Parentalia, a festival honoring ancestors held February 13-21. One wonders whether there is some connection between this tradition and the Estonian custom of offering legumes to the ancestors at souls’ time.

Traditionally, joking, laughing, shouting, noise and noisy work like tree-cutting were banned during souls’ time, as was spinning, according to an article edited by Mariann Joonas in last week’s Telegram online newspaper.  Link: http://www.telegram.ee/vaimsus/hingedepaevast-ja-hingedeajast

In the Middle Ages, children went from house to house, singing and begging for soul-cakes. A prayer was said for the benefit of the ancestors in exchange for each small cake. This soul-cake custom still exists in the British isles and other places, Joonas writes. In the 19th and 20th centuries, children in the Mulgi region of Estonia dressed in white  and went from door to door, though not specifically begging. Nevertheless, they were given cakes, nuts, beans and peas in memory of departed ancestors.

Hing, the Estonian word for soul, also means breath. The ancestors of the Estonian and Finnish people believed that souls existed not just in humans, but in animals and in all the rest of creation.  They believed that the soul, or a portion of it, could leave the body during sleep, sickness or unconsciousness, visibly or invisibly, sometimes as a soul-creature such as a bee or butterfly. At the time of death, the hing might enter a new person, animal or bird, go somewhere else, or remain close to its former home, according to Joonas’s article.

And so I conclude by wishing blessings to you and your ancestors at this souls’ time.

What’s a lau, anyway?

Here are the days of the week, in Estonian, the way I learned them as a small child. Note that there is no capitalization. Esmaspäev (first day), teisipäev (second day), kolmapäev (third day),  neljapäev (fourth day), reede, laupäev, and pühapäev (holy day).

Like residents of other Baltic countries, Estonians start their weeks on Mondays, so using the term first day for Monday makes sense.  So does numbering the next three days, and calling Sunday holy day.

But what does reede (pronounced RAY-deh) mean? And what’s a lau, as in laupäev? Nobody explained stuff like this back in Estonian Saturday school.

Reede’s meaning

The meaning of reede wasn’t that difficult to track down once I started looking into it. The wonderful “Eesti Keele Etümoloogiline Teatmik”  (Estonian Language Etymological Dictionary) by Alo Raun, purchased on my last trip to Estonia in 2010, indicates that the word reede has German and Swedish origins, and was derived from the word fredag, which is the Danish and Norwegian word for Friday. My three years of tortured high school German tells me that fredag sounds very much like Freitag, the modern German word for Friday.

That, too, makes sense because the Germans and their language, though utterly unrelated to the Estonian native tongue, heavily influenced modern Estonian. Indeed, German was the lingua franca of Estonia for 700 years. *See note below.

For example, the 19th century Lutheran parish records I’ve been examining  online in my search for ancestors are mainly written in German.

But back to reede and its origins. In Latin-based languages, the word for Friday is based on the Latin dies Veneris or “day of Venus”. In Italian it’s venerdi, vendredi in French, and it originally honored the Roman love goddess Venus.

The word Friday too honors a goddess, the Germanic goddess of married love  known as Freya,  Freja or Frigg.  Wikipedia states that the English word Friday  comes from the Old English Frīġedæġ, meaning the “day of Frigg”, the result of an old convention associating the Old English goddess Frigg with the Roman goddess Venus. So Estonian reede is actually borrowed from the Germanic word for Freya’s Day in honor of this goddess.

English days of the week

Incidentally, the sources for naming our other weekdays in English are the moon (Monday), the Norse god Tiw (Tuesday), the Norse god Woden (Wednesday), and the Norse god Thor (Thursday). Saturday derives from the Roman god Saturn.

Wikipedia gives us this explanation for Tuesday:

“The English name is derived from Old English Tiwesdæg and Middle English Tewesday, meaning “Tīw’s Day”, the day of Tiw or Týr, the god of single combat, victory and heroic glory in Norse mythology. Tiw was equated with Mars” the Roman god of war whose name is the source of the French word for Tuesday,  Mardi  (think Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuesday

Estonian teisipäev, Tuesday, means second day, as I wrote earlier, but one wonders whether there is a possible connection between teisi and Tiw’s day because of the similar letters. However my etymological dictionary says the Estonian word teine, which means second, originates from the  läänemeresoome (Baltic Sea Finnic) root language  and then from the soome (Finnish) word toinen (second), and thus is not of Germanic origin.  Note that Estonian and Finnish are not members of the Indo-European language family, to which English, German and most other European languages belong.

And now to lau

So where does lau come from? Not only is it used for laupäev, Saturday, but also for the evening preceding Christmas. Christmas Eve is called jõululaupäev. That’s another thing that really stumped me as a kid: why did Estonians call this night Christmas Saturday, when it didn’t always fall on a Saturday?

I knew that laud means table or a wooden board.  Lause means a phrase. Laul is song.  But none of these words is a root for lau.

Turning to my handy reference tool, the etymological dictionary, I discover that  laupäev is an Estonian and Votyak (another Finnic language) word but derives from a Scandinavian language, Norwegian. It’s based on the Norwegian word lau(gar)dag.  Incidentally the Estonian word päev, which means day, comes from Baltic Sea Finnic and is based on an earlier Saami word, päiwe. My dictionary says it originated from the Saami people of northern Sweden, who are sometimes called Laplanders.

Beiwe, which I imagine is pronounced much like päiwe,  is the Saami goddess of the sun, spring, fertility and sanity. So I guess you could say that the Estonian word for day comes from another goddess-name.  When the sun once again appears in polar regions after winter’s long darkness, the Saami smear butter on their doorposts to encourage Beiwe’s return.  Beiwe’s daughter, Beiwe-neida, whose name means sun or day maiden, often traveled with her mother across the sky riding in an enclosure made of reindeer antlers. The Saami word neida is the source of neiu, the Estonian word for maiden.  To the ancient Finns, Päivätär was the goddess of spinning and weaving, and was likely the equivalent of Beiwe-neida. It seems like we Estonians owe a number of words to the reindeer-herding Saami.

I keep drifting off the topic of lau. I looked up its Norwegian source-word on Wiktionary, and this is what it says:

Laugardagr = From laug (“pool”) +‎ dagr (“day”), literally “bathing day”.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/laugardagr

In other words the Estonian name for Saturday literally means Bath Day.  Lau = bath. And our name for Christmas Eve literally means Yule Bath Day.

It’s nice to know the ancestors bathed at least once a week, often twice on the week before Christmas.

To the saun

However, Estonians usually  didn’t just hop in a tub with their rubber duckies and lather up. They generally lit a wood fire in the saun (sauna is a Finnish word)  to heat the saun stones, tossed water on the stones to generate steam, and remained in the steam to perspire, thereby removing dirt, germs and other impurities.  Often they livened things up by whipping one another lightly with switches of birch twigs to bring the blood (and its impurities) closer to the skin surface. Estonians still go to saun on Saturday evenings if they have the opportunity, and they still employ those birch twigs. Many still follow up a nice steamy saun session with a plunge into a cold pond or even snow, although you couldn’t pay me enough  to try that. It’s supposed to be great for health, but I’d prefer not to catch pneumonia.

I made up a chart showing the origins of the days of the week  in English, Latin-based Italian, and Estonian.  Note that in all three languages, Friday is a day honoring a goddess of love.

 

English Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
origin Sun Moon Tiw Woden Thor Freya Saturn
Italian Domenica Lunedi Martedi Mercoledi Giovedi Venerdi Sabato
origin Lord’s Day Moon Mars Mercury Jupiter Venus Saturn
Estonian pühapäev esmaspäev teisipäev kolmapäev neljapäev reede laupäev
origin holy day first day second day third day fourth day Freya bath day

 

*Note: Before 1200 the Estonians and their neighbors the Latvians were free pagan people,  but early in the 13th Century they were attacked by German crusaders seeking to forcibly Christianize them by order of the Pope. The Estonians and Latvians successfully resisted for about 20 years, until the Danes moved in from the north and captured the principal city, Tallinn, while the Germans took the rest of the country.

On April 23, 1343 the Estonians rose up, renounced Christianity  and fought for their freedom, burning manors and killing every German they could find. This was called the St. George’s Night (Jüriöö) uprising and lasted nearly three years, until the rebellion was crushed by the invasion of the Teutonic Order. The indigenous Estonians were forced into serfdom under the German ruling class, which remained in power during subsequent Swedish and Russian conquests.

Under Russian Czar Alexander I, serfdom was abolished in Estonia in 1816, and in Livonia (which consisted of southern Estonian and northern Latvia) in 1819. The German nobles still controlled all the land, but new laws were established beginning in the 1840s allowing Estonian peasants  to move freely, own property, and govern their own local affairs. Between 1822 and 1835 Estonians acquired surnames for the first time.

 

 

 

 

It’s Estonian Women’s Day – have some red beer!

Today, February 2, is popularly known as Groundhog’s Day in the U.S., but unfortunately, the fun is generally over after the drowsy rodent has seen/not seen its shadow and predicted more winter/early spring.

However in Estonia, Küünlapäev, literally candleday (Candlemas) is an all-day festival for women, who head out to pubs and quaff red-dyed beer or vodka, while the men stay behind to mind the children and do the housework.

What a great idea! I always knew Estonians were geniuses, especially Estonian women. Moreover, this holiday is not just some brainchild of modern-day Estos – it’s been a tradition for perhaps centuries.

February 2 is also known by the name naistepüha or women’s holiday. Women put on their best clothes and necklaces, and went visiting or dancing at local cafes and pubs.  The special beverage of the day is called naistepuna, which literally means “women’s red”. This is beer or another alcoholic beverage colored red.

St. John’s Wort flowers

The word Naistepuna also happens to be the Estonian folk name of a plant called St. John’s Wort, hypericum perforatum in Latin. Traditionally women gathered the plant’s bright yellow flowers during the summer solstice and dried them to make red dye for the Candlemas beer.

Many of you may have heard that St. John’s Wort is considered an herbal treatment for depression, especially by people in northern Europe.  It makes me wonder if the dried flowers were put in the beer on purpose to relieve the gloom of a long northern winter and cheer the women up.  Estonian women still drink red beer on this day, but I believe it’s usually done with food coloring.

The Open-Air Museum outside Tallinn, Estonia, featured a program today in which visitors got to make candles from sheep fat, taste traditional foods and sip St. John’s Wort tea, which supposedly made people’s cheeks rosy. Pink cheeks were considered sign of good health.

In Toronto, Canada, home to a large population of Estonian immigrants and their descendants, members of Estonian women’s academic organizations will probably celebrate their 53rd annual Candlemas event this weekend.

Traditional beliefs of February 2

Traditionally, this day signifies that winter is half over, and that half the food stored for winter should still be in the larder and the barn.  Like Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas was a day for forecasting weather. A rainy day was supposed to predict a rainy summer, while a sunny one meant a dry summer.

All of the women’s winter spinning had to be finished before this day, since it was forbidden for women to spin on Candlemas, lest the sheep get sickly weak and attract wolves.  Sewing was allowed in southern Estonia, where each stitch represented a poke in a wolf’s eye. Almost all other housework was prohibited, maids got the day off, and wages were paid. People ate flitch (unsliced bacon) and barley porridge.

It was believed in Estonia that candles burned brightly on this day.  Candlemas was a Christian holiday when the church candles were blessed for the coming year. In pre-Christian times, candles and fires were used in rituals and magic to honor goddesses and gods of fertility.

The Exalted One

In Ireland, February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began as a pagan goddess, Brid or Brighid. St. Brigid remains the most celebrated and revered figure in Ireland next to St. Patrick. Sometimes this day is also called Midwinter Day, because it falls midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox.

Fire and purification are an important aspect of the ancient pagan festival of Brid (pronounced breed). In the Celtic world, she is also called Brighid or Brigit in Ireland, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. It is believed the name comes from a root Sanskrit word Brahti meaning “The Powerful One” or “The Exalted One”.

Brid was the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. Both goddess and saint are associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. On her day, the home was cleaned, old ashes removed from the fireplace, and new fire kindled.

Brid originally was a sun and fire goddess, and this is reflected in her legends: she was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. She was patroness of healing wells and springs, because the fire of the sun was believed to give the water healing properties at certain times of year.

In Pagan belief, the divine aspect of the feminine is associated with water, abundance and fertility. There are wells dedicated to Brigid throughout the United Kingdom, with Brigid’s well in Kildare being the most revered. People cast offerings such as coins, rings or bits of metal into wells. In a 19th century survey it was found that Ireland was home to nearly three thousand holy wells. Of these, at least fifteen are dedicated to St. Brigid.

Wives’ Feast Day

In Northern England and Scotland this day is known as Wives’ Feast Day, which sounds a lot like the Estonian women’s festival. Other members of the household cook dinner for the lady of the house, and she is given small gifts and honored as keeper of the hearth and home. It looks like they’ve got the right idea, but do they drink red beer?

In ancient Rome, Midwinter Day belonged to Juno Februata, virgin mother of the god Mars. The word Februare in Latin means “to purify”. Fires were lit for purification, and candles were blessed and burned in her honor. Women carried candles in street processions in memory of Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone, as told in the Greek myth. Determined to stop goddess worship, Pope Sergius I in the year 453 ordered February 2 to be celebrated as the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary, forty days after she had given birth.

No matter which name it goes by, February 1 and 2 are celebrations of fertility, the divine feminine, and the awakening of the earth that eventually leads to spring. And, let’s not forget, it’s a day when women can and should celebrate themselves.

A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.