For such diminutive plants, it was a Herculean feat. After something like a month of frost, with the ground as hard as bell metal, and then with fresh snow falling, our old friend galanthus nivalis made it through in the nick of time. I find snowdrops always take me by surprise. After days of watchful waiting, you turn your back, and there they are.
We are blessed with many snowdrops around where I live.
From the kitchen window I have a wonderful view of an entire bank of them sweeping down to the Pennyland Burn. Under the stone dykes and hedgerows on field edges, along the farm tracks and loanings, snowdrops grow in abundance, and in sheltered spots these are often the first ones to appear. They are completely wild.
In my own garden I have a clump near the burn that catches a good bit of sun when it’s available, and I have more recently transplanted some ‘in the green’ to a couple of dogwood circles in the ‘arboretum’. I am patiently waiting for them to spread.
Beyond the common form, the only snowdrop name I can recall is ‘Three Ships’. It is prized for being in bloom on Christmas Day. But the snowdrop’s main association is with a different festival, Candlemas.
Now I came to this by a diverse route.
In the late 1970s I got completely drawn into the BBC dramatisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre. Each episode ended with a beautiful choral rendition of what I came to know as the Nunc Dimittus. The haunting music matched wonderfully with Alec Guinness as the mournful George Smiley, brought out from retirement to find the ‘rotten apple in the barrel’.
The Nunc Dimittus opens with the words ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. This is the utterance of Simeon when he observes the infant Jesus with Mary, together in the temple for the first time, and knows he has seen the light of the world and can now himself leave it. The scene was captured beautifully by Rembrandt in one of his final works, Simeon’s Song of Praise.
The Christian tradition associated with the infant Jesus in the Temple came to be known as Candlemas. It is celebrated on 2nd of February, marking the occasion described by Simeon.
Yet its timing resonates with something far more ancient. The day in question is on or about the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is adjacent to Imbolc, the Irish festival that later became the day of St Brigid – one also associated with fertility. This day, the very middle of winter, was – and is – a time for light, for hope, for saying goodbye to the darkness and waiting for the harbingers of spring. It was undoubtedly important to the earliest people of these islands, and for some, remains so.
Later, it became an element in the annual cycle of agrarian society – a time for hiring labour, for paying rent, and for settling debts. Candlemas is one of the Scottish ‘quarter days’, along with Whitsuntide (15 May) Lammas (1st August) and Martinmas (11 November), when such duties are similarly discharged.
By the Middle Ages, Candlemas was fully established as a festival in the Christian calendar. Like others, it had been successfully grafted onto older cultural stock, along with some added bells and whistles. There were candle lit processions, pageants, plays and municipal feasts. The white ‘Candlemas bells’, often planted in churchyards, were gathered into bright bunches for church decoration on the appointed day in February, and deemed unlucky to pick before it.
The Reformation did much to dispel Candlemas. Secularisation did the rest. Yet the snowdrops remain, and this year they have taken on another significance for me. Eagerly awaited, delicate yet tough, they have arrived just when we needed them most. This year perhaps we see them in a new light, emerging through the iron-gripped cold of lockdown and leading us, we must hope, beyond it.
First published in Garden Musings, 2 February 2021
One thought on “Snowdrops at Candlemas”
The 1979 Tinker Tailor is a must watch for all espionage illuminati. Alec Guinness is at his best as Smiley and simply brilliant. Once you have seen it watch a bit of The Recruit on Netflix to see just how far the espionage genre has declined in the almost half century since this 1979 masterpiece.
Then head back to 1974 and read about a real secret agent (MI6 codename JJ) in Beyond Enkription, the first stand-alone spy thriller in The Burlington Files series. It can’t and never tries to compete with John le Carré’s undeniable mastery of the espionage genre and his delicate diction or sophisticated syntax. However, it’s sheer action packed pace leaves your quotidian John le Carré novel snoring on the sofa. Do remember this was written by a real life “agent running in the field” from London via Nassau to Port au Prince.
What is interesting is that John le Carré might have authored The Burlington Files save as explained in a news article on TheBurlingtonFiles website dated 31 October 2022. If you are into anecdotes about John le Carré, Monty’s cousin Kim Philby and the SAS it’s worth a quick read.