St. Maewyn’s Day

You may know this fellow better by his adopted name: Patrick.

Patrick was named Maewyn Succat when he was born circa 385 CE to a wealthy Roman family in either Wales or Scotland. At age 16, he was kidnapped by raiders and sold as a slave to Ireland, living there for six years as a shepherd and learning about its people until he managed to escape back to England. It was when he became a priest that he changed his name to Patricius. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, preaching and converting the pagans to Christianity. In the Catholic church, his feast day is the day of his death, traditionally believed to be on March 17, 416 CE.

Legend has it that Patrick used the three-leaved shamrock (Irish seamróg = “little or young clover”) as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity. He may also have chosen this plant because the number 3 was significant for Celtic pagans; it is the “number of everything”. It wasn’t until the 18th century, though, that the shamrock began to be used as an Irish symbol. The shamrock (several species of Trifolium) has traditional medicinal value and was a common Victorian motif. In the Language of Flowers, the red clover signifies the virtue of industry, white clover means “think of me”, and the four-leaved variety says “be mine”.

Wearing green today? When the chivalric Order of St. Patrick was founded in the 1700s, blue was adopted as its official colour, which led to that colour – not green, which was considered unlucky – being associated with the saint. The use of green to represent Irish nationalism stems from 17th and 18th century political movements.

It’s understandable that legend, cultures and customs meld over time. It’s still an odd thing to me, however, that folk worldwide suddenly become Irish for a day on March 17 – and celebrate it in some pretty outrageous ways. I don’t march in parades or look for leprechauns, but I have been known to wear green on the day – although I wear it often, as it, along with blue, is one of my favourite colours. I don’t drink beer, so the green Guinness is out. (But that would be an insult to Guinness aficionados, anyway!)

I do think of my paternal grandmother, though. I know very little about her; my father never said much, for the very reason that he wasn’t given the chance to know her, either, and now there is no one left to ask. What I did discover through genealogical research, however, was that she emigrated as a young woman from Belfast to Canada in the early 1900s. Why? To seek a new life: employment, better housing, a marriage? I don’t know whether she had known my English-born grandfather, who was already living in Toronto, before she set foot on that ocean-crossing steamer. Regardless, they married soon after she arrived – and soon after that, came my dad! Sadly, that little family’s hopes and dreams died along with her a couple of years later in childbed, after my father’s little sister was born. A heart-wrenching story of hardship, struggle and lost dreams – but then, historically speaking – doesn’t that make me so quintessentially Irish?

Detail, Book of Kells scarf – a treasured gift from a friend.

New Beginnings

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American Robin (Turdus migratorius) keeping an ear out for worms

I haven’t been on WordPress much lately, so I apologize for not making the rounds of all your wonderful posts, but I’ve been engaged in a much-needed and long overdue activity: job-finding. This was the number 1 item on my 17 for 2017 list, and I’m happy to report that, after a January-long search, several interviews and a couple of days of orientation, I started a new job last week! It is in a field I know well but have been away from for several years, so it’s good to get back to the familiar, where I can put my skills to good use. This new situation, however, will bring a learning curve, new challenges, and, no doubt, a fair deal of stress. I expect a surprise or two each day, but as I settle in, things will become easier.

For this blog, as February turned quickly to March, I didn’t have a clear vision for a monthly theme. I looked at the calendar. Yes, there’s St. Patrick’s Day; I’m one-quarter Irish, so I might give this a nod. The most significant event seems to be the Spring equinox, which graces us here in the Northern Hemisphere on Monday, March 20 at 6:28 a.m. EST. (It occurs at the same moment worldwide, despite differing time zones.) The first day of Spring, and all its fresh promises! Given the positive change in my working status, I finally had a theme for March: New Beginnings!

The word equinox comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). This is what The Old Farmer’s Almanac has to say: On the vernal equinox, day and night are each approximately 12 hours long (with the actual time of equal day and night, in the Northern Hemisphere, occurring a few days before the vernal equinox). The Sun crosses the celestial equator going northward; it rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west.

Meteorologically speaking, the official Spring season always begins on March 1 and continues through May 31. This is based on annual temperature cycles rather than the Earth’s position relative to the Sun. Planting is done according to the gradual increase of sunlight, warming temperatures and a thing called Phenology (Greek for science of appearances) – watching for nature’s signs. Did you know, for instance, that it is generally safe to plant radishes, parsnips and spinach once the crocuses have bloomed? Or that perennials can be planted when maple trees begin to leaf out?

I think we all practice a bit of phenology as we eagerly look for signs of the new season. In March, worms begin to emerge from the earth, giving rise to this month’s full moon name: the Full Worm Moon. Birds have already begun to migrate north, following the path of the Sun. Here in southern Ontario, red-winged blackbirds have been here for a week or two, to keep company with small pockets of hardy, overwintering robins. (The rest of the red-breasts will surge north to join their cousins – and pick off all those worms – any day now.) Song sparrows are usually the next to follow, and cardinals have been singing their exuberant heads off for quite some time. Birdsong is, in fact, triggered by the increasing sunlight; I’ve always thought that birds sound happier on warm, sunny days.

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The pale promise of Spring

Some trees and shrubs, such as pussy willows and forsythia, are setting out buds. Crocuses and snowdrops have been flowering in sheltered areas; tulips and daffodils won’t be far behind. Amphibians such Spring Peeper frogs and hibernating mammals are beginning to wake and stir from their cosy winter dens. Just yesterday, a friend who lives in the countryside remarked upon the annual re-emergence of George, a six-year-old female woodchuck, from her burrow beneath the deck. George, my friend is happy to report, looks sleek and well-rested and quite ready to face another sun-filled season grazing on clover, dandelions and all those freshly-planted crops!

While there is little historical evidence that ancient peoples of Britain and Europe honoured an equinoctial god or goddess, there is speculation that Xáusōs, a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, may have given rise to Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon dawn goddess, and to Ostara, the neopagan moon goddess of Spring and fertility. Modern pagans celebrate Ostara at the vernal equinox, considering it one of the eight major festivals of the Wheel of the Year. Thousands gather at Stonehenge to mark the equinox sunrise through the ancient stones. In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a national holiday spent visiting family graves and holding family reunions.

Symbols of new life are starting to abound; soon there will be bunnies and egg-painting and baskets filled with improbably green “grass”. Folklore tells us that the Spring equinox is the only time of year when an egg can be stood on its end. While I’ve never tried it myself, I’ve read that this is just a myth. Clover and other three-leaved plants were considered gifts from the faeries to bring protection and good luck; they were co-opted into Christian symbolism, particularly associated with St. Patrick, as a representation of the Holy Trinity.

The practice of Spring cleaning stemmed from the desire to rid the home of old or negative energies accumulated over the dark winter months. Some people drink dandelion and burdock cordial as a rejuvenating, blood-cleansing tonic. In keeping with ancient tradition, I will most likely mark the equinox with fire – a symbol of the Sun. A pure beeswax candle, some fresh herbal incense, perhaps a few pretty purple amethyst stones to catch the light.

How will you celebrate this time of awakening, when the world seems young again and the air holds the promise of regeneration and new growth?

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Tulips at the local market – a glorious sight to behold!