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Candlemas, Imbolc, and Chickens
Happy Candlemas! The day the Church celebrates the presentation of the Infant, the purification of the Virgin, and has traditionally blessed candles, a reminder of Christ being the light of the world.
In pre-Christian Britain and Ireland, this time of year was known as Imbolc and, stationed as it is halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, it was time to celebrate the approach of spring. Scholarship suggests that pagan celebrants also honored a deity they called Brigit at this time, and lit sacred bonfires in her honor. I love the romance of this, whether true or not (and, sadly, much of the scholarship regarding pre-Christian religion in the British Isles has been retconned by neo-pagan biases and doesn’t hold up to the historical record), that the whole weary world longed so fiercely for our Savior, that we were lighting signal fires for Him, even though we didn’t know His Name.
We are heavy candle users in our little domestic church, and even more so during winter, when all of New England seems draped in grey and dripping in fog. We light tealights by the dozens each afternoon, little reminders in the gloom that the Son- and the sun- will return. Though the days are already an hour longer than they were at the winter solstice, I feel greedy for sunlight. I am ready to put my hands in warm soil again, to close my eyes and tip my head back, and feel sunlight warming my eyelids and turning my interior world orangey grey.
The chickens agree with me. They’re moody and irritable, and, since egg production is reliant on sunlight, they’re not laying currently. With egg prices being what they are, and feed prices right behind them, I stare at my hens balefully, calling them “useless eaters” and wondering why we don’t just do as others do, and give the birds supplemental light in their coop to trigger egg laying (because Connecticut’s electricity rates have doubled in the last year, and I really do think God intended chickens to have a season of rest).
I have people texting me daily, wondering if the farm has any eggs to sell (we don’t- useless eaters!) because they’ve just return from grocery shopping and have suffered horrific sticker shock at the current price of eggs. Even Aldi, the land of the $.90/dozen eggs, is currently rocking this tidy little sign o’the times:
Yup. That’s Aldi eggs, almost two full dollars over what I was charging people for mine last summer. Madness.
It’s madness everywhere. So while I wait for the return of both eggs and the Son, and curse my useless eaters for denying me 50% of those things, allow me to share with you an excerpt from the manuscript I’ve been working on for the last million years. A little story about the humble chicken, whose equally humble ova are now fetching a king’s ransom at Aldi, but not here at the farm.
Growing up as I did in the 80s, the war on drugs in full gear, DARE officers made the annual pilgrimage to school assemblies everywhere to talk about our brain on drugs, to encourage us to seek out hugs rather than chemical highs, and to remind us that in the timeless search for adolescent peer acceptance, just saying no was definitely the way to go.
One thing that every sweetly earnest speaker drilled home was the fact that there were no “safe” drugs, and indeed, some drugs, specifically the ubiquitous marijuana, were known as the dreaded “gateway drug”. A gateway drug, we were taught, seemed innocent and innocuous, something that the naive thought they could interact with in a light, casual way, but you took one toke and BOOM! the next moment you were sleeping in a doorway, halfway dead, desperately trying to find your next hit of the hardest drug known to man. Your mother cried. Your father cursed the day he left a lighter out on the counter. The gateway drug loomed larger in our consciousness than did nuclear holocaust or falling into a well like Baby Jessica.
So decades later, when I heard of chickens being described as “the gateway animal”, I snorted, hearing the phrase said in Nancy Regan’s voice, and shrugged it off. After all, I was only contemplating three chickens, to be housed in a firmly suburban stretch of Connecticut, and there was zero chance of this encounter spiraling into anything unmanageable.
The chickens I had finally brought home, after months of peppering my sweet husband with fun facts about the benefits of chicken stewardship, came from a farm down the road that would sell laying hens for $12 each. Worn down by my persistence, if not won over by the joys of prospective chicken ownership, Ken finally acquiesced one spring Sunday after Mass. Before he had time to change his mind, I grabbed my oldest daughter, and then headed to the farm to pick out three hens.
The two of us entered the cool darkness of the barn with almost reverential calm. We were about to select three chickens who would enter into the circle of our family life. While I didn’t then view them quite on intellectual par with the dogs and cats, I knew these three birds were going to occupy a sacred space that was not only based on their ability to provide food for us. These birds were a gift from the Creator, who placed their stewardship in my hands, and I needed to constantly remember the solemn and awesome responsibility that was the keeping of these magnificent animals.
And then I caught a whiff of the smell.
It wasn’t the smell many of us associate with agriculture- that odiferous wave of manure freshly applied to spring fields. That crushing stink that makes your eyes water and drives you to desperately roll up the car window you’d just rolled down, where only moments before you’d been happily basking in the first warm day since October. And it wasn’t the boisterous, musky smell of the petting farms we visited on school field trips either, where we filed past stall after stall and dutifully kept our hands to ourselves lest our small fingers become victims of the donkey, the goat, the horse. It wasn’t any of those smells. It was rather a dusty, hollow smell that rose and swirled on the air and settled into your nose, as fine as the particles dancing in the shafts of barn sunlight.
Now I recognize it as the smell of feathers and earth, the union of which contented hens bring about every day through the dust bath- a process where the chicken throws dry soil all over her body, ruffles her feathers way up to allow the dirt to shimmy down all the way to her skin, which keeps her clean and provides relief from any mites that may be bothering her. It’s the smell of chickens allowed to even nominally exist as God created them to exist, allowed access to sunlight, fresh air, good brown dirt, and the space to stretch wings wide.
It isn’t an unpleasant smell. While it filled the air completely in that barn, it wasn’t overpowering. But it did knock right out of my head all the gentle, pious thoughts I’d been having about the nature of chickens and my holy duty toward the creatures and immediately replaced them with a new thought that bordered on terrifying: I was surrounded by dinosaurs.
Well, not exactly, of course. As authentic science admits, nothing is ever really settled, but what newly discovered dinosaur DNA is suggesting is that dinosaurs were more closely related to chickens than to reptiles. The hundred hens surrounding me in that suddenly too-small barn were possibly linked to the terrifying velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame in ways I never previously considered.
To steel myself, I thought about the history of the word chicken. In times of duress, I’m almost as likely to recite etymological litanies as I am my Rosary. It depends if I have the internet handy. Chicken comes to us from an ancient Germanic word, kiukinam, which itself is from an even older word- keuk- which more or less imitates the soft cluck that contented birds make. It was a sound that floated in the air next to the fragrance of dusty feathers, a sound of happy birds that did not seem, at the moment anyway, ready to spring upon me and reclaim the age of dinosaurs.
My daughter and I were led past a couple storage rooms and into the main part of the barn, sliding door open to the early afternoon, sunlight falling on more than a hundred feathered, beaked bodies, scratching the dirt floor, jumping a few feet off the ground to catch flies midair, laying in fluffy puddles and tossing soil back over their bodies in enthusiastic bathing rituals. We were told we could pick any that we wanted, and the farm hand would help us load them into the box we’d brought.
I looked over that sea of talons and beaks and glittering eyes and russet feathers and felt the tyranny of choice. All the hens were Rhode Island Reds, a breed known for excellent egg production, hardiness, and a rambunctious, bold personality that made them good for beginners like us who had no idea what we were doing. I knew they were all between 1-2 years old. I knew they were all hens. But that was it. I didn’t know what to look for, what to avoid. So I did what any sensible mother would do in that situation- I deferred to the nine year old.
Happy Candlemas, everyone! May all of us, humans and chickens alike, be always bathed in the glorious light of Christ.