British Traditions > February

The name February comes from the Latin word 'Februo' which means purification through the act of sacrifice. When there were only ten moths in the Roman calendar, February was added onto the end of the year and followed December. In 452 B.C., however, it was moved to be between January and March.

Candlemas Day - 2nd February

Candlemas Day falls on the 2nd of February. In the Church calendar it is The Feast of The Purification of Our Lady and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is also the day when the church candles are blessed, given out and carried in procession. This part of the celebration is a continuation of the ancient pagan Feast of Lights on the 1st of February when flaming torches were carried through the villages. The act of processing with lights probably points to Candlemas Day being regarded as a milestone in the return of the sun. The flames were thought to add strength to the light of the sun and help it on its way back to warm the earth.

In some districts of Britain,  Candlemas  Day is supposed to be the day when the first snowdrops appear. Traditionally these early spring flowers are used to decorate Churches at Candlemas. Certainly they grow in abundance on the sites of derelict monasteries.

Imbolc, celebrated on 1st February was the Celtic festival of lambing. Many of Imbolc's traditions were absorbed by the later, Christian festival of Candlemas.

In the West Country and the Cotswolds the second of  February is the traditional day for sowing peas and beans. Here is an ancient rhyme from the Cotswolds:

"Candlemas Day put beans in the clay,
Put candles and candlesticks all away."

This rhyme refers to the custom of sowing beans on Candlemas Day and also to the fact that the days would be lengthening and candles would no longer be needed.

Saint Valentine's Day - 14th February

St Valentine
The fourteenth of February has long been regarded in rural tradition as the day on which birds chose their mates. The day has also been associated with young people choosing sweethearts and exchanging love tokens.

There were two saints with the name of Valentine. One was a Roman who was martyred in A.D. 269 and the other a bishop from Umbria who was executed in A.D. 273. In neither case is there any clear link with romance or lovers.

What we now call St. Valentine's Day was, in Roman times, the eve of the festival of Lupercalia during which partners were chosen by lot for the coming year. The festival also involved the giving of gifts to persuade an unwilling partner.

It is this festival from which the modern day Valentine celebrations stem.

There are many regional customs concerned with girls hoping to dream of their future husbands. In some districts they would sleep with bay leaves under their pillows on Valentine's Eve. There was also an old tradition of wearing stockings inside-out in the belief that this would bring them a vision of their future spouse.

As with other festivals St. Valentine's Day was traditionally used as a excuse to go door to door singing and asking for food and money.

Shrove Tuesday (or Pancake Day)

Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Day, is the day before Ash Wednesday which is the first day of Lent, the forty days of fasting leading up to Easter.

Pancakes represent the eating up of all the foods which would be banned during Lent. The word "Shrove" is the confessing of sins before fasting during Lent as a penance for sins. The Shriving Bell called the congregation to church but after the reformation it was called the Pancake or Fritter Bell.

On Shrove Tuesday people would go around the villages chanting rhymes and asking for alms. One chant from Somerset went like this:

Give me a pancake and I'll come in.
Give me a pancake and then I'll go!"

St Matthias Day - Februay 24th

St Matthias' Day is traditionally said to be the day when plants begin to grow after their winter sleep. One old saying goes “on St. Matthias sow both leaf and grass” suggesting this was a day when the sowing of crops took place.