Spinning straw into gold

On snowdrops and hope

Devon Snowdrops

We've been deluged by storms throughout this last month -- fierce wind with rain alternating with hail, and snow blanketing the higher moor -- but I'm trying to hang on to the sense the great wheel of the seasons has begun to turn. One token of the change is the emergence of flowers: shy primroses in the corners of our garden, wild daffodil shoots in the hollow of the woods, and the small white bells of snowdrops glowing bright against mulch and moss.

The Snowdrop Fairy by Cicely BarkerIn his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy writes:

"I can think of nothing more extraordinary and exceptional than the annual rebirth of the world; and in fact, there are a specific number of markers of the rebirth, of the earth's reawakening after winter, dates in the natural calendar if you like, which for me are occasions of joy almost as much as the solstice is, and which I celebrate in heart.

"The first of these is the appearance of snowdrops. Small white lilies that sprout up and flower in midwinter, even in the bitter cold -- perce-neiges, snow-piercers, they're aptly called in French -- would be notable anyway, but I've long been equally fascinated by snowdrops for their cultural resonance. They are closely associated with a major feast of the Christian church which follows Christmas, although while the world and his wife cannot remain ignorant of 25 December, indeed, cannot get out of the way of the Yuletide juggernaut, I doubt if one person in a thousand could tell you today what Candlemas is.

Snowdrops in the hedgerow

"Celebrated on 2 February, it marks the purification, under Jewish religious law, of the mother of Christ, forty days after his birth. (It also commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple.) But Candlemas long meant something else as well, in practical terms, especially in the Middle Ages: it was the day when everyone in the parish brought their candles to be blessed by the priest. This was so that they could become -- that splendid word -- apotropaic, that is, they could ward off evil spirits; and after a procession, and the blessing, the candles were all lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary. Imagine: on a typical murky February day, in a medieval church that was gloomy anyway, this must have provided a spectacle of that left the deeply pious onlookers spellbound; it must have been the brightest moment, quite literally, of the whole year. (You can get a feel for it if you visit Chatres, and come across the luminous flickering throng of candles in front of the Virgin's statue in one of the cathedral's dark corners.)

Snowdrops in the churchyard

The Chagford village church

"But another source of brightness was also closely associated with Candlemas, and that was the snowdrops, for they were the flowers of the feast. It is easy to see how they were perfect for it, flawless symbols of purity that they are. Once called Candlemas bells, it is not hard to imagine what pleasure must have been taken in gathering them, or in merely having them growing by the church, on the day itself; and even now, although you can find great swathes of snowdrops in woodlands or along river valley floors, especially in the West Country -- stirring sights, whole sheets of blossoms turning the ground white in all directions, nature with all its flags flying -- many of our best displays are still associated with the old faith, clustering around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where hundreds of years ago they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

Snowdrops and gravestones

"All of this has greatly drawn me to them, yet even more than their delicate beauty, more than the traditions which cluster around them, I am most taken with the timing of their appearance, with their place at the start of the calendar -- above all, with the first sight of them in any given winter. I can remember, for example, a walk with my children, a few years ago, through a wood on an icy late January day, and the path through the bare trees took a turn and suddenly there they were, the first of them, a small clump poking through the leaf litter, a small splash of brilliant white on the woodland floor's dull brown canvas, and I smiled at once, as if suddenly meeting an old friend: Hi, how are you?

Snowdrops in the woods

"I was filled with emotion; I was filled with joy, I would say now. I wasn't sure then why the feeling was so strong, but that evening I sat down and worked it out: here was the earth, still firmly under the lock and key of winter; here was I, huddled inside my coat, adjusted to the cold hard season as if it would last forever; and here they were, the first visible sign of something else. They were the unexpect but undeniable notice that the warm days would come again, and I realised what is was that made me smile: here against the dead tones of the winter woodland was Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white."

Hound in snowdrops

The white bells of snowdrops

Pictures: Snowdrops in the woods, the hedgerows, and the village churchyard. The painting is "The Snowdrop Fairy" by Cicely Barker (1895-1973).

Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature & Joy by English naturalist Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015). The poem in the picture captions is from Twelve Lilts: Psalms & Responses by Scottish poet Diana Hendry (Mariscat Press, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.