Category Archives: Lore

The Festival of Light

February 2nd is not just any day. It’s Groundhog Day, of course. North Americans awake eagerly to see what our rodent friends Wiarton Willy and Punxsutawney Phil, and I think a few others, have prognosticated for the end of winter. It’s all a bit cheesy and weird, honestly. Is it not?

A great prophet? Harbinger of spring?
A great prophet? Harbinger of spring? Image credit:

But actually, Groundhog Day is built upon an older tradition, the Christian festival of Candlemas, which marks the 40th day after Christ’s birth and the ritual presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem. Starting in the Middle Ages, the day became the one where all the candles in the church were blessed – hence the name.

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Candles are light, but they are also symbolic of light. And it’s no coincidence that Candlemas happened to follow at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox – a time when we begin to really notice that our days are filled with more light. With the longer days, we begin to think of spring. Though here in Saskatchewan we are still in the bitter depths of winter, the earlier sunrise and later sunset remind us that spring will come.

And so Candlemas, the day of light, was also a day for predicting the weather to come. A traditional proverb:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright                                                 Winter will have another fight                                                                     If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain                                     Winter won’t come again.

A few other bits of lore:

For some people, different superstitions surround this festival. For instance, if a candle drips on one side when carried in church on Candlemas, this denotes a death of a family member during the year.

If someone brings snowdrops into the house on Candlemas day it symbolises a parting or death.

Any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5th) should be left up until Candlemas Day and then taken down.

But Candlemas is based on an even older tradition. The pre-Christian Gaelic peoples called it Imbolc, which may be derived from the Gaelic words “in the belly” which pertained to pregnant ewes – a sign of the coming spring. It was a day of feasting, of laying out gifts and items for blessing by the goddess Brigid (later, incidentally, known as St. Bridgid in the Christian tradition). They would light candles and bonfires, too.

So Groundhog Day, broadcast on TV with much fanfare, is a bit kitschy and corny. But it has its roots in some old, old knowledge of the seasons and the cycles of light.

Image credit:
Image credit:

Change of Season

– George Santayana

I used to try to hold desperately on to summer. I hated winter with such a vengeance that every sign of autumn was unwelcome, no matter how beautiful. I dreaded the first honks of migrating geese while simultaneously feeling moved by their sheer numbers, their incredible journey. I resented their Vs flying south because it meant winter was coming. I’ve learned to appreciate autumn more, and even winter. I’ve learned to love each season for what it is.

This year, I feel ready for winter to come. I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I can accept it. This change in mindset has been slowly changing for years, but it solidified last year when I was working on Master’s thesis. I spent nearly every day of September, October and November outside. I had never been so intimately acquainted with Nature on a daily basis before. The autumn unfolded slowly in front of my eyes. When winter did come, it was not an unwelcome shock as it had always been when I lived in the city away from Nature or when I was younger and blinder. It was simply the natural unfolding of events. It was time.

Because I spent so much time outdoors, I also noticed things I had never paid attention to before. I’ve always considered myself a Nature lover, someone who goes gamboling about just because I enjoy fresh air and the beauty of the natural world. But I had never had the opportunity to just be in it for such a stretch of uninterrupted time before. I had never had the chance to let it seep into me. It changed my life. This blog exists because of it. And so here are some of the harbingers of the coming winter.

Leaves and lack thereof All trees have their own schedules and agendas. Here in Saskatchewan we don’t have the brilliant foliage displays like they have back East; the trees go about their business more quietly. Some begin to change in early September, some trees have shed their summer adornment completely by the first of October. Others take their time about it, like the stately poplar in my yard that just changed colour last week and is still clinging onto the last of its leaves. It has also shared some of them via a west wind with the evergreens across the lawn.

Bearing of fruit My garden (my first) came into its full fruition. The spuds were the last to go, and what a harvest it was. Wild plants have also borne fruit, like the wild roses along the ditch who are proudly displaying their hips.

Birds There is nothing as awe-inspiring as the great autumn migrations, nothing. The sandhill cranes have been and gone, uttering their strange guttural cries. The geese are just coming now in their giant flocks – tens of thousands in one field, sometimes. I can hear them at night as they rest on Stink Lake a few miles to the northeast. The blackbirds left earlier. Some of the smaller birds leave so quietly that I don’t notice until they return with their happy songs in the spring. Right now I am obsessed with the Tundra swans that have taken up temporary residence on the wetland north of home and the slough south of home, hence the excessive amount of swan photos. I’ve never seen so many in one year before. I hope they like the looks of the Gap and decide to come back next year, too.

Digging in Burrowing mammals are digging in and getting settled for the cold to come. The most obvious form of this is the muskrat house. Muskrats live in sloughs and other bodies of water. Around this time of year, their houses start popping up, built of mud and grass and other local materials. Truly vernacular architecture. Folklore says that the size of muskrat houses determines the severity of the coming winter. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, we might be in for a cold one.

Light and shadow It wasn’t until last year that I truly understood the  movement of the sun and how it determines the seasons. As I photographed barns every day, I had to keep changing the settings on my camera as the days progressed. I finally realised the obvious: the sun was changing position in the sky, slowly but surely. It sits lower in the sky. Shadows lengthen – even in the fullness of the afternoon, they are longer than in the summer. The angle of the sunlight casts a golden hue on everything. To each season, its own light. And me, chasing it.

Eggs and Potatoes

“Eggs for winter were kept by filling two gallon crocks with eggs and covering them with a mixture of “Water Glass” and water.

Boiled potatoes, old and new: Your great-grandmother knew this secret, and you should too. Always start boiling old potatoes in cold water. Cook new potatoes in boiling salted water.”*

Boil these in salted water. Kristin Catherwood.  September 26, 2012.
Boil these in salted water. Kristin Catherwood. September 26, 2012.


*Anonymous. 1982. Prairie Grass to Golden Grain, Ogema and District Historical Society, Ogema.


Farming by the Light of the Moon


Waxing moon. Kristin Catherwood. September 15, 2013.

 I recently came across a treasure trove of farming folklore related to the lunar cycles in the R.M. of Key West’s local history book. The folklore was embedded within the Dewey Johnson family history. Henry “Dewey” Johnson was born in 1898 in Selby, South Dakota. He married Leoda Baird, born 1899 in North Dakota. The family history mentions that both of Leoda’s parents “wore guns because of the outlaw Jesse brothers and others who rode through there.” Dewey immigrated to the Ogema district in 1910 where he helped his brothers with their well digging outfit. In this job he “used a willow to witch for water veins.” Dewey and Leoda raised their family in the Ogema district, and their descendants live there still. At the end of their family history, Dewey included this store of farming advice timed to the lunar cycles.

“In an effort to improve productivity, Dewey and Lee were always aware of growing conditions relating to time of year, degree of moisture, methods of tillage, as well as the phase of the moon.

Through constant experimenting and noting results, they arrived at some definite conclusions which assisted them in their day-to-day activities.

Of particular note were the moon phases. They concluded that to promote life, activity should be performed in the light of the moon, preferably two days after the start of the ‘new moon’ phase – i.e.:

1)      Transplant all plants in the ‘new moon.’ (Note: most nursery trees have a clipped branch clipped on NORTH side of the tree, plant with this to the NORTH.)

2)      Wean and castrate animals in the ‘New Moon’ (Note: Dogs are more gentle, pigs don’t have scabby backs or droopy tails and young animals develop better)

3)      Plant vegetables which bear fruit above ground (i.e. peas, beans)

4)      Swath crop in the ‘new moon (even if green, it fills and ripens in the swath – peel back the hull and if starting to ripen, swath now in the new moon)

5)      Pick vegetables and fruit in the ‘new moon’ (they are crisper and sweeter)

6)      Butcher in the ‘new moon’ (meat is tender and will not shrink and splatter when cooked)

DARK of the moon – last three days of last quarter.

1)      Prepare ground for garden and field (kill weeds)

2)      Spray hard to kill weeds (sow thistle, dandelion, wild oats, mustard)

3)      Plant vegetables which produce underground (i.e. potatoes, carrots).*


*Johnson, Henry “Dewey.” 1982. Prairie Grass to Golden Grain, Ogema and District Historical Society, Ogema. 138-139.