“Though winter still is here, it hasn’t long to stay.” (Christina T. Owen)
There is something magical about the snowdrop (Galanthus). A dreamy mix of fragility and durability.
Each year, when they first appear, I’m inspired by their determination and strength, piercing through hard winter frost.
Painting them, I notice their protective leaf at the top of the stem. This part of their anatomy allows them to push through the layers of earth, giving them the name “snow-piercer”.
Their arrival signals the coming of a new season. In doing so, they mark the ending of another.
I remember them appearing in the woodland not long after my father passed away. A delicate sign of hope, a reminder to find strength amidst the turmoil.
The snowdrop is not simply a plant that blooms in the spring; it promises that life will return, even after the darkest of winters.
Deep sleeps the Winter,
Cold, wet, and grey;
Surely all the world is dead;
Spring is far away.
Wait! the world shall waken;
It is not dead, for lo,
The Fair Maids of February
Stand in the snow!
~ Cicely Mary Barker
In the old Gaelic year, the first of February marks the season known as Imbolc. A pre-Christian festival that celebrates the beginning of spring and the agricultural year, it coincided with the lambing season and the first ploughing of the fields.
The welcome appearance of snowdrops around Imbolc epitomises this celebration of ‘newness’ and the turn of the season.
Folklore and fairytales
There is a German folk tale in which God asked all of Earth’s flowers to lend colour to the snow. The flowers were wary of the snow, having experienced its chilly temper all too often. So, they refused.
Except for the snowdrop.
It happily shared its white colour with the snow.
And so grateful was the snow that, in return, it blessed the snowdrop and offered it protection in the winter frost, allowing it to bloom first before the others.
‘The Snowdrop’ by Hans Christen Anderson is a classic folktale of bravery and overcoming adversity.
The fragile flower stretches and extends into the light:
“I must stretch myself; I must extend myself. I must open up”
Eventually, the flower is picked and placed in a book of poetry, feeling honoured and delighted to have found meaning in its existence.
You might have heard snowdrops referred to as Candlemass Bells. Before the Reformation, snowdrops were used to decorate churches on Candlemass as a sign of purity. At the time, it was considered unlucky to pick them before Candlemass.
Eventually, it was deemed unlucky to pick snowdrops at all.
The Victorians felt it was a bad omen to bring them indoors, and they were rumoured to bring death and mourning.
Instead, they were planted in graveyards to signify comfort and peace.
Today, you can still find snowdrop drifts flowering amongst graves.
“I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—”
(Excerpt from ‘Snowdrops’, by Louise Glück)
Can you share any folklore about snowdrops? Let me know in the comments — I’d love to hear from you.
February Watercolour Print Giveaway
Welcome to all new subscribers; it’s great to have you here!
I host a giveaway of two original prints each month for my current Substack newsletter subscribers. As a subscriber, you are automatically added to the draw.
This month’s prints are ‘February Fair-maids’ and ‘Solitary Firstling’ (images above).
And the winners are… Fiona (G) and Claire (M). I’ll be in touch this week to get your postal address.
What I’m up to this week
CREATING: I’m revisiting some of my old folk songs from my first album ‘Be Still Gentle Kind’ (2012); remember it? No, me neither, apparently. It’s an enjoyable ramble through lyrics and melodies. I’m reflecting on how best to approach the songs as a grown-up. More on this to come later in the year.
READING: Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour (David Coles).
WATCHING: ‘Happy Valley’ (BBC) the final! Who isn’t? Happy Valley is a triumph of writing, directing, casting and acting. Writer and director Sally Wainwright deserves every inch of praise she’s received for the series, as do Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran in their roles. Women, being brilliant — what’s not to love?