A nervous look to February

Snowdrops defy the worst weather.
Snowdrops defy the worst weather.

Written by Heather Elvidge

After a mild start, January was all leaden skies and unending rain. But just as it was in danger of boring us, the month named after the two-faced god sprung a final surprise. Now it’s time to say farewell and look forward nervously to “February fill-dyke”.

The last thing we need is more snow or rain, yet that is February’s reputation. The old weather lore says it’s a good thing: “All the months of the year curse a fair February.”

Whatever the next few weeks bring, spring is on its way. From now on the sun’s warmth increases as it climbs higher in the sky.

Already the first catkins are showing, hanging like lengths of brown cord on the bare hazel trees. As the pollen develops they’ll become bright green, then yellow. And the first flowers are in bloom — snowdrops, the Fair Maids of February, are undeterred by snow or frost. Their leaves have a tough covering that allows them to spear through frozen soil, hence their old name of snow-piercer.

Before the Reformation the bulbs were grown at religious sites so the flowers could be picked to decorate the altar at Candlemas. This earned snowdrops the charming name of Candlemas bells.

These tough but elegant plants have always divided opinion. Some said that bringing them indoors brought bad luck, others that snowdrops purify the house. Certainly the flowers can only be fully appreciated close up. Inside the outer petals are three smaller ones marked with a green crescent, and they have a lovely, delicate scent. So unless you fancy kneeling on cold, wet ground, it’s best to bring some in.

Light of spring

The first day of February is an old Celtic quarter day. It was called Oimelc, the Gaelic for ewe’s milk, because the first lambs were born. The day was dedicated to Bride, also known as Brighde or Brigit, the goddess of lambing, calving, and childbirth.

Affection for Bride was so strong that it continued after the arrival of Christianity. The Life of Saint Brigid, written in the seventh century, owes much to Irish pagan myth.

Candlemas on February 2 is a Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, remembering Mary’s visit to the Temple 40 days after the birth of Jesus. Its English name, dating from 1014, comes from the abundance of candles lit to celebrate Christ as the Light of the World.

The day can also tell us if the worst of winter is over: “If Candlemas Day be clear and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”

Weather prophets were keen to see if hedgehogs would emerge: “If a hedgehog casts a shadow at noon, winter will return.” A mild spell can rouse hedgehogs from hibernation, though if their forecast proves right the hogs will be in trouble.

The waking process uses a lot of energy, which they can’t replenish if beetles and slugs are in short supply. So if you should see a Candlemas hedgehog in your garden, offer it some meaty cat or dog food.