From The Archives: The origins of some ancient traditions

Florence and Harry Peppitt in St Neots. 

Florence and Harry Peppitt in St Neots some time in the 1940s. - Credit: David Bushby

The month opens with Candlemas Day on February 2. This early Christian festival celebrates the day, when the Virgin Mary went to the temple to be cleansed after giving birth to Jesus and to present her baby to God. In the medieval church a special mass service was held on the day which was marked with a candle lit procession, hence the name ‘Candlemas’.

February 2 also marks the midpoint of winter, between the shortest day on December 21 and the spring equinox on March 20. This suggests the ancient farming roots of festivities on the day. It was also a day when traditionally the weather for the rest of the winter could be predicted.

Cold and bright weather on the day was said to foretell a cold end to the winter, while mild and wet weather was said to predict a mild spring. An alternative name for the day was Badgers’ Day as it was believed in some parts of Huntingdonshire (and more widely across Europe) that badgers would wake up on that day go to the entrance of their sett (burrow) and if it was sunny and they could see the shadow of their tail on the ground then they would go back to sleep as more cold weather was coming. 

February is also the month in the Christian calendar when Lent begins. This is the period of denial and fasting which begins with Shrove Tuesday, marking the lead up to Easter. Of course Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day when everyone uses up their milk, eggs and flour ready for fasting in Lent.

In St Neots, the day was marked by the ringing of the pancake bell from the parish church, which continued until 1914. It is obviously no accident that Lent used to coincide with a period when food supplies from the previous year’s harvest might be running low and so for many people there would be less to eat in February.

Like Candlemas, Shrove Tuesday (when you were ‘shriven’ or absolved of your sins) has its roots in ancient farming and fertility rituals. In the Roman calendar the festival of Lupercalia was held in mid-February to drive off evil spirits and purify the land, bringing health and fertility in the coming year.

Also celebrated during February is St Valentine’s Day. The day is said to commemorate the martyrdom of a Roman Christian called Valentine on February 24 in AD 269 but how this event became a day celebrating true love is unclear.