Snowdrops are one of my favourite flowers. I marvel when I spot those slender white shoots poking up through the cold hard earth – as early as December these days. The botanical name is galanthus nivalis, which means snowy milk white flower. But common names for them in folklore include Snow Piercer, Mary’s Taper, Fair Maid of February and Candlemas Bells.
These labels indicate that this delicate flower (one of the few to occur in one colour only) is heavily associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Feast of Candlemas which we shall celebrate here on February 2nd. This is the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. It is a double celebration as it commemorates two main events, the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple.
According to Mosaic law, children were to be presented in the temple forty days after birth to give thanks to God for protecting the babies through those crucial early days, and at the same time prayers were sought to purify the mother after the bloodshed of childbirth. Some older people may remember that new young mothers, often marched there by their own mothers, used to come to church to seek “Churching”. I certainly recall in the 1960s when Jack was serving in Leigh and Little Hulton (both traditional societies) such a service being requested, although his interpretation was an offering in prayer of thanksgiving for the safe delivery of the child and survival of those first weeks rather than purification.
So the white candles that we shall hold aloft for Candlemas symbolise both Jesus as the “light of the world” and the purity of Mary. Likewise the brave snowdrop, a harbinger of spring, offers hope and consolation that the dark days are drawing to an end.
One of the legends concerning snowdrops suggests that after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Eve despaired that winter would never end. But an angel appeared and transformed some snowflakes into snowdrops, proving that winter truly does yield to spring. The Victorians, however, believed that it was unlucky to bring even one snowdrop into the house as that action foretold a death.
To me the delicacy and strength of those white blooms link me to the Blessed Virgin Mary as she pondered the future of her child in her heart, as she watched him grow with apprehension in her mind and ultimately stood alongside the cross on which he died.
To honour Mary every day millions of Christians throughout the world recite this prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen