The first day of February is one of those days when the stories and speculation far outweigh the verifiable, but maybe fiction has always have been more prevalent than fact. The neo-pagan notion of Imbolc and the Christian conjecture about Saint Brigid of Kildare have as much by way of historical substance as many of the stories told to children.
As children we were told that eating carrots would help you see in the dark. A lecturer in theological college days said the story about carrots had been invented by British intelligence during the Second World War. Wishing to disguise the effectiveness of their radar systems, they put the story around that service personnel were given lots of carrots in order that they would be able to spot enemy aircraft. It seemed an unlikely story. The story of the carrots was probably around long before the invention of radar.
Where do such stories come from? Someone must be the first originator of stories that seem to snowball in the telling. The church seemed extraordinarily adept in developing stories that would place its own interpretation on traditions or events. Some of the stories that circulate are patent nonsense – such as the claim that the Twelve Days of Christmas was a Catholic Creed during the days of Protestant persecution (a claim that is presumably reversed where Protestants were the ones persecuted), others are a retrojection of Christian meanings upon much more ancient events.
The Church took the religious feasts and customs of ancient peoples and attempted to give them Christian meanings. Those whose traditions were appropriated often accepted a Christian veneer on their practices, but it was often no more than a veneer. Irish traditions of sacred places and magical powers continued to be believed and if the price of their continuation was their association with some saint or other, then it wasn’t too dear a price to pay.
On this alleged first day of the Celtic spring, 1st February, when the church remembers Saint Brigid of Kildare,the deep-rooted association of the day with the returning daylight runs much deeper than the magical tales of the supposed abbess of Kildare. The instinctive joy at the lengthening days is something more profound than the silliness attached to the neo-pagan festival of Imbolc. Neither Christian nor neo-pagan rites have the power to connect with those whose lives are shaped by the realities of light and darkness and who have long shaped their own spirituality.