Festivals of Fire and Thaw

candles in earth tell

ancient fables to tree roots,

angels whisper “Grow”.

Antonia Sara Zenkevitch

Hello All,

I hope you are warm and safe. If not that I’m sending you my thoughts and prayers for healing, hope, and security.

In all the difficulties we are facing, I wanted to highlight the beauty of this time of year, despite it often being associated with the blues. There is a global chorus of ancient festivals marking the promise of spring, that this year cluster around the full moon. Romani and travellers call last month’s cycle the snow moon. Jews call this the month of trees. Across the Northern hemisphere our collective ancestors marked winter’s thaw, reminding them that the cold would end, and to kindle hope and renewal in their lives. While famous festivals, such as Christmas, Yule, Hogmanay, Chanukkah, Diwali and more cluster around the winter solstice celebrate, when days are becoming slowly longer and lighter, these late winter festivals of thawing mark the time that the days become slowly warmer. Life is awakening under the ice. Watch for snowdrops and new leaves.

The festivals that cluster together in late January to early Feburary mark spring struggling and surging through snow to be seen. Yet we’ve largely forgetten or sideline this part of the turning wheel of the year. One friend said ‘if Hallmark don’t do a card about it, it doesn’t exist.’ But I think, in an ordinary year, the number of spikes in depression and anxiety could be lessened to some degree if we challenge the disconnect with the seasons. I believe it could benefit many of us to re-examine festivals of oncoming warmth and hope. I’m classified as at high risk during this pandemic, and between those extra dangers, my underlying conditions, low mobility, a dodgy stairlift and an aggressive neighbour, I’ve been out only twice since last March. So, with this absence of feeling the sky above my head and earth below me, following the path of the wheel of the year in other ways is vital to wellbeing. I believe it could possibly help others keep their internal rhythms in the chaos too.

In past interfaith work and in my story-weaving, I find archetypes written into all sorts of narritives and folklore, their origins not always fully evident. The ideas and customs of any group of people has rarely grown in total isolation, for we humans occupy different offshoots of the same branch of creation. So the dates and themes of festivals converge. In fact, many of the following fit between January 31st and Feburary 2nd, with many others between the 12th and 16th Feburary.

There is no one right way. Different festivals are born of diverse cultures and faiths, and each shine to different people. There is also something stunning in how they all connect yet remain distinct and tied to the cultures that create them. Tu B’ Shevat; the birthday of trees and the Tree of Life is a festival I have focused on a lot recently. Jews harvest fruit and plant trees across much of the Eastern and Southern Hemispheres, where the air is warmer. In much of the Northern and Western Hemispheres, we celebrate sap rising from frosts. We also celebrate the power of words, which we believe are foundations of creation. Though a relatively minor festival in the Jewish wheel of the year, it is a favourite holiday for me, as a femininst, environmentalist Jew. It always coincides with full moon of our month of Shevat. This year felt extra special because it fell on the 28th January, so near other festivals, and to my birthday. It really brought home its connection to a broader collection of world festivals on the bridge between winter and spring.

In Ireland and parts of the British isles the feasts of Bridhgid; Bride’s, and St. Brigid to Christians are held at this time. They share their date in the Gregorian calender with Norse Disting-Tid, with Gwylffraid, and Imbolc, one of the pagan holidays for this time of year, honours life awakening unseen within the belly of the earth. The end of January and beginning of Feburary is also the time of the Navajo Song festival, the Feast of Isis, known as goddess of healing, magic, and rebirth in ancient Egypt, and the Yoruba/Santeria feast of Oya, Orisha of death and rebirth. It was the start of the three day feast of Februa, and later Vesta, known as goddess of fire of the altar and the hearth in ancient Rome. It was also the time when ancient Greeks celebrated the return of Persephone to her mother Demeter from the underworld where she was kept in winter months.

And then there is Candlemas, the Christian festival celebrated on the same day, in which my beloved neice and nephew (my husband’s twin’s children), make the most beautiful patterns of candles in the icy ground. (Yes, we are a proudly mixed faith, intercultural family.)

We made and lit soy wax candles in orange peels, as we did on Tu B’ Shevat, weaving our traditions together. They glowed like mini suns, and released their scent into our home with the promise of distant summer. We ate vegetable stew and a potato dish called boxty which Dan’s family were also eating, connecting us across the distance. We watched ‘Groundhog Day’, the 1993 feel good film that made a treasured American festival well-known around the world. Groundhog Day also falls on the 2nd Febuary, and originates in Pennsylvania, where the length of winter still to come is said to be predicted by whether or not a groundhog sees its shadow.

Lucia, another herald of springtime in Roman mythology, has her festival, Lupercalla on February 15th, a date she shares with the Greek goddess of love. Lupercalla is a festival associated with purification and home blessing, which holds similarities to other festivals such as those honouring the Egyptian diety Isis, as well as Vesta, Brighid, St. Brigid and the New Year festival of Hogmanay. Both Lucia and Brighid are often depicted wearing crowns of candles. Likewise Juno Februata, mother of Mars in the pantheon of planets, is celebrated on the 2nd of February with the lighting of candles. Meanwhile, there is Setsubun and Snow festivals in Japan, lantern parades in China, Farsang Farka in Hungary, St. Ia’s in Kernow (Cornwall) where another branch of my family come from.

The feasts for Juno, Vali, Lucia and Aphrodite, and Nirvana Day in the Buddhist calender cluster together on the 14th and 15th, on or near St. Valentine’s Day. The Welsh day of love and lovers, Saint Dwynwen’s shares the 25th January with Burn’s Night, celebrating the bard of Ayrshire and Scotland, Robert Burns, and Scottish culture generally.

The 31st of January is the birthday and feast day of Catholic mystic and poet Thomas Merton. The 2nd February is World Wetlands Day. The 7th of February is the birthday of Frederick Douglass. It is also the Baha’i feast honoring the Divine as one, or Mulk, and humanity as one. February is both Ethnic Equality Month and LGBTQ+ history month.

There are common themes, yes of light-kindling, and oncoming spring, but also of connection to the agricultural year and to the seasons, and the waking up from hybernation in the places where spring is in the air. So many of the festivals on the bridge between January and February, this year near the full moon, include shared themes of poetry, love, healing, purifying of hearth, home, body and other sacred spaces, smithcraft or silver-work, mining – all things linked to bringing forth from earth, labour, heart or spirit. They all help reconnect us to our dependance on and duty to the Earth and the eco-systems and social systems we are part of. There is a collective intake of breath as we wait for the next chapter of life, the next growth, the next nourishment, the next hope. The end of winter is close.

Then, comes the February New Moon. It heralds Chinese New Year (Ox), little black month in the Romani calender, and the Jewish month shifting from Shevat to Adar, when fish move in flowing waters. The Hindu spring festival of Vasant Panchami is on the 16th. It is around this time that the next cluster of world festivals of oncoming spring burst forth with themes of love and freedom emerge. Towards the end of the month Jews will celebrate the colourful festival of Purim and many Christian traditions celebrate Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, and enter Lent.

There are many hidden branches in every family tree, and ultimately we are all connected, but each of us find our own way with our own blends of choice and the call of ancestors, faith or culture and rationale. As a story-weaver I am drawn to some of these beautiful customs, tales and expressions of faith. I aim always to treat the beliefs of others respectfully, finding and treasuring both difference and similarity, whilst tryng not to misappropriate. There is wisdom and there are beautiful in teachings in every culture. To love your roots is not to say they are better than those of others. We are are one orchard; or one mystical tree full of many fruits, and lights.

I’m sure those who celebrate festival I have mentioned here will have different interpretions to mine. I mean no dishonour, or to tread on toes. Difference, in the human and natural worlds is important. But I also delight in shared themes and focus. So, drawing on some of these shared themes, I would like to propose some toasts and blessings:

For agricultural workers, miners and others bringing forth from the belly of the Earth and keeping humanity going in the pandemic and beyond, let us raise a toast to you. May your work be recognised and fairly paid. May we always have enough of what we need but never take another’s share or take too much from the Earth herself.

For (fellow) poets and story-tellers, may we honour words and silver our tales, not to cover truth but to explore and draw attention to it in fantastical or unusual ways. May words be heard by those who need to hear them, and may we thrive by using them to good purpose.

For crafters, artisans, silver-smiths or metal workers, let’s raise a toast to shaping of new things. May you too live well by your craft or means of your choosing knowing you add beauty and function into others’ lives.

For hearth keepers, guardians of lights for peace, and keepers of wisdom and kindness, may these late winter festivals of light help translate your work into shared, respectful action, and may you live safe and well by your work/action.

For environmentalists, may these festivals of awakening spring, awaken motivation in others, and help keep hope kindled in you. May you be fruitful and rewarded for your work/actions.

And for everyone, no matter your faith, creed, culture of origin or choice, or personal history, may these one or more of these or other festivals, mark a time of oneness with nature and ourselves. A time when we honour both difference and togetherness, not tying the right to be loved on being the same. For, when we light candles the world we see is never that beige.

With love, whoever you are, wherever you are. May you find the song of winter thaw that sings to your soul and culture. And may you find a balance of ice and fire within you.

(For those who cannot see them, the first of the abstract pictures below depicts fire seen through ice. The second picture depicts flowing water reflecting the colours and life around it.)

fire and ice by Antonia Sara Zenkevitch
flow by Antonia Sara Zenkevitch