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A page of snowdrop folklore, legend, superstition, history and myth,
enhanced with a collection of illustration for children from well known artists of the early 1900s.

Snowdrop History                       Folklore, Legend & Superstition                   Associated Festivals

If you are in south-eastern UK, you might like to see the new
Calendar of Kentish Snowdrop Events for 2017

Snowdrop Mandal, original art by Anne Thomas

'Imbolc Snowdrops' by Anne Thomas
You may buy this and other beautiful cards at  'shiningedge'
mandala © annethomas -used here with Anne's kind permission

 

   “Welcome, welcome!” sang and sounded every ray, and the Flower lifted itself up over the snow into the brighter world.
The Sunbeams caressed and kissed it, so that it opened altogether, white as snow, and ornamented with green stripes.
It bent its head in joy and humility.

“Beautiful Flower!” said the Sunbeams, “how graceful and delicate you are!
You are the first, you are the only one!
You are our love! You are the bell that rings out for summer, beautiful summer, over country and town.
All the snow will melt; the cold winds will be driven away; we shall rule; all will become green, and then you will have companions, syringas, laburnums, and roses;
but you are the first, so graceful, so delicate!”

Extract from 'The Snowdrop' by Hans Christian Anderson
Read the entire story online here ...

 

    

'Snowdrop & Bumble Bee' M Goetz
'Snowdrop Babies'  M Goetz
Postcards from illustrations by German illustrator M. Goetz 1928

Welcome indeed Snowdrop, Flower of Hope. Among the very first to tingle our senses into believing that winter will soon be past and warm days might really return.

      There's such a magic and simple tranquility about them - no wonder they're so beloved of the Faerykind. (Muddypond Green, who writes and researches here, is indeed a Galanthofae!)
     Native to our islands or not, who doesn't seek for signs of them in gardens, parks and churchyards on a fine January day as the first grey-green spears of foliage push through the frosty earth?

  

    The first printed British reference to 'snowdrop' flowers can be found in the Gerarde's 'Great Herbal', published in 1597. There he called them 'Timely Flowering Bulbous Violets' which he says may perhaps be the 'Gillowflower or winter-flowering Violet Alba'  mentioned by Greek naturalist Theophrastus (c250 BC) in his 'Enquiry into Plants' first published in Latin translation c1490.  (Gillowflowers are more usually known to have been sweet smelling 'Pinks'.)   The Gerarde's 16th century description is detailed and unmistakable ....

  'The first of these bulbous violets rises forth of the ground with two small leaves, flat and crested, of an ouerworne green colour: among the which rises up a small and tender stalk, of two hand high;
  At the top whereof cometh forth of a skinnie hood a small white flower of the bigness of a violet, compact of six leaves, three bigger and three lesser, tipped at the points with a light green. The smaller leaves are not so white as the outermost great leaves, but tipped with green as the others be.

  The whole flower hangeth down his head by reason on the weak foote stalk whereon it groweth. The root is small white and bulbous. (It) flowereth at the beginning of Januarie. ….
  They are maintained and cherished in gardens for the beauty and rareness of the flowers, and sweetness of their smell.'
   

Illustration (cropped) by Helen Jacobs
From Stella Mead's 'The Land of Happy Hours' 1930

See below

 
    Perhaps surprisingly
, these perfect little blooms are not wild British natives. Gerarde continues - 'These plants do grow wild in Italie and places adjacent, notwithstanding our London gardens have taken possession of them all, many years past.'   

 It's thought that the bulbs were first brought to Britain in the 15th century by Italian monks, who introduced the bulbs into the gardens of monasteries.

 

      Just over half a century after Gerarde, in 1656, John Parkinson describes 'snowdrops' in his elegant book of garden plants 'Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris : or, A Choice Garden of all Sorts of Rarest Flowers', calling them 'Lesser Early Bulbous Violets'.

 


His sample, he tells us, came to him from Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey)..

 
'This lesser kind riseth up with two grayish green leaves, between which commeth forth the stalk, bearing one small pendulous flower, consisting of three white leaves which are small and pointed, standing on the outside, having three other shorter leaves which seem like a cup in the middle, being each of them round at the ends and cut at the middle making the form of an heart, with a green tip or spot at the broad end or edge. …..

  The root is like a small daffodil, with a blackishgrey coat, and quickly divideth into many off-sets.

This lesser sort do most commonly flower in February if the weather be anything milde, or at the furthest at the beginning of March '

 

      The plant referred to by Homer in 'The Odyssey' as the magical herb 'Moly', believed by some to be a reference from 8th century BC to the Snowdrop, is much more likely to have been the white flowering stem of wild garlic, named in Gerarde's Herbal as 'Moly Hippocraticum'.
  

Snowdrop child - Milicent Sowerby
Postcard taken from an illustration
by Milicent Sowerby
pub Humphrey Milford c1930

   The first mention of the common name 'Snowdrop' in its modern form comes from the latin 'Galanthus nivalis', clearly classified by Carl Linnaeus, a remarkable Swedish botanist, in his pioneering work 'Species Plantarum' 1753. You can find the reference in Section V1 under. 'Hexandria'. Galanthus translates as having 'milk-white' flowers and Nivalis as 'snowy'.     

   You may have read the first two lines of the following excerpt on many a website about snowdrops: -

‘The Snowdrop in purest white arraie
First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie;
While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’

   where you may be told that this is  " From an early church calendar of English flowers, c. 1500." ....

      The early date suggested is nonsense of course as the common name wasn't so much as dreamt of at that time! The lines come in fact from the pen of an eccentric, 19th century, catholic essayist named Dr Thomas Forster. You may read it all in his work 'Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanac'. This was cited in Gentleman’s Magazine Volume 93 Pt 2 as "Preparing for Publication" in 1824!

       

'The Snowdrop Fairy' Cecily Mary Barker
'Boy with Snowdrops - illustration for February by Isabel Bonus
'The Snowdrop Fairy' by Cecily Mary Barker
from 'Flower Fairies of the Winter'
By artist Isabel Bonus from
Canon E E Holmes' 'Meanings of the Months' 1909

 

   Candlemas Bells,   Christ's Flower, Death's Flower,   Dew-drops,  Dingle-Dangle,  Drooping heads.  Drooping Lily,  Fair Maids of February,  French Snowdrop,  Mary’s Taper,  Naked Maiden,  Purification Flower,  Snow-bells, Snow-flower , Snow-piercer, White-bells,  White-cups,  White Ladies, White Purification, White Queen,

Postcard from Rene Cloke c1940

 

      Snowdrops have aquired many folk names over the last few centuries, some reflecting their appearance, some the superstitions associated with them, some their unusual winter flowering habit and some their identity with the spiritual calendar.

   They are often represented as shy flowers, who are afraid to raise their heads because of some misdemeanour or other. The real reason is that their dusty pollen must be kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter. No mean feat in the February winds, snows and rains. And so - they droop!

  

One of the most famous legends concerning the snowdrop flower is a kind of creation story -

 A Christian Folk Myth which tells
'How the Snowdrop Became"

    It was the eve of Brighid's Day when he at last agreed to go down to the earth once again. As he plummeted towards the garden - the promised place - he felt ice crystals in the air, saw the stars far above glitter with frozen light.       

Expulsion of Adam and Eve' in stained glass, Wisconsin
'The Angel expels Adam and Eve from
the Garden of Eden'
Stained Glass from the Church of Holy Hill,
Hubertus, Wisconsin

   Landing lightly on the grass, fragile with frost, he could see them. They stood close together, shivering despite the coverings contrived from feathers and weeds which hung from waists and shoulders, arms raised to protect frightened eyes from his light.

    He spread his monumental wings, stepping towards them -
"The Creator says you must leave this place, it is no longer yours as a privilege." 
Giving them no time to wonder or delay, the sheer magical strength of him compelled them to move - descending the unfamiliar path towards all that was unknown, nameless, outside.

   Watching the two, hand in hand, heads bowed with tears, he noticed the first snow drifting like thistledown through the silence of the night.  Deep sorrow he felt for them and stretched out a hand. Snowflakes gathered in his palm, hexagonal wonders, showing no sign of thawing there.   Bringing them closer to his mouth, he breathed a sigh over their perfection. As the crystals were touched with the breath, each turned to a three petalled flower white as the snowflake that had birthed it. Each drooped its head, hiding the touch of fresh, soft green at its heart.

  "Take a sign of hope," he called, "a sign for your kind and for the earth outside."
   As they moved towards the gap in the stone wall, he threw the snowdrops in a halo shower around their heads. They walked on unawares, taking the little blessing with them.

 

Snow babies with the Snowdrop Queen - Ida Bohatta-Morpurgo
Root Man looks after snowdrop baby before the Spring - Ida Bohatta-Morpurgo
 
Two illustrations by Viennese artist Ida Bohatta-Morpurgo   Rt: from 'Bei den Wurzelmännlein' 1940

 

 A Romanian Folk Myth which also tells
'How the Snowdrop Became"

      In Romania, a folk legend is the basis for an age-old ‘first day of spring celebration’, held on March 1st and known as Mârtisor.


    Long ago, when the Sun appeared each year to warm the earth in the form of a beautiful young girl, the people loved her dearly and looked forward to her appearance with joy. When she stepped onto the earth, birds began to sing and roots stirred under the ground.

Mârtisor for Romanian festival March 1st
Mârtisor
Click here to follow image link


     One year however, the monster of Winter, known as a Zmeu, lay in wait for the young Sun and took her prisoner. No ray of brightness could escape from the thick, stone walls of his castle dungeon. That year, Winter did not lose his iron grip on the soil, the earth stood hard and grey and the people suffered.

    A young Hero, who loved the Sun dearly and saw the plight that the earth would face without her, sort out the Zmeu and lured it from its castle walls. The two fought bitterly and Hero managed to set Sun free. He warmed himself with her kiss as she rose into the sky and the icy winds became Spring breezes.
But poor Hero was grievously wounded and despite Sun’s warmth, he fell to the ground.
    Each drop of blood as it fell melted the snow beneath him and the first snowdrops began to grow, opening their white petals as Sun reached her zenith.
      

   It is still a tradition at the Mârtisor Festival, for a woman to receive a charm, worn for good luck, which is some form of red and white threads which are twisted together (see image at right), sometimes with tiny red and white dolls attached.

    The 19th century Scottish poet George Wilson, at the conclusion of  "Origin of the Snowdrop" gives us the following apt lines ....       

"And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ; "
   

'February' by Helen jacobs
'February' - postcard illustration by Helen Jacobs c1940

    

   Snowdrop Superstition:

   Despite the joy that the little flowers bring to early Spring days, snowdrops have been known as objects of dread. No-one seems sure about the roots of this fear, but in folklore from many parts of the British Isles this feeling was uppermost.    

'The First Snowdrop' Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

'She Calls up the First Snowdrop'  Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

If it be true that the plant was brought to this country and introduced to monastery gardens by monks, then the association with burial may well have originated in these very beginnings. The Victorians took snowdrop planting on the graves of loved ones to their hearts, and in many parts of the country, particulary in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was considered very unlucky to bring the little blooms into the house from their cold environment - a single bloom being the worst omen of all. This superstition has been very well documented.

    According to "The Handbook of Folklore" published in 1913 by the Folklore Society, it was a common country belief that  "Snowdrops may not be brought in at all, as they will make the cows' milk watery and affect the colour of the butter."

     The book mentioned above, and Margaret Baker, in her well known book "Discovering the Folklore of Plants" 1969, mentions that, along with other spring flowers, bringing snowdrops into the house could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.
     Snowdrops were not held in fear everywhere however. Interestingly, she also states that  "In Shropshire and Herefordshire the house was 'cleansed' when the snowdrop was carried in with ceremony in the 'white purification'.

   For many, Galanthus Nivalis was looked upon, not so much as a foreteller of death with its 'corpse-like shroud', but as a sign of triumph over adversity and herald of eternal life when its flowers opened wide in the winter sun after months under the ground.


"It is unlucky to decorate your rooms with snowdrops.
The snowdrop always blossoms on Candlemas Day
The snowdrop will ensure purity of thought to the wearer
If a girl eats the first snowdrop she finds in the spring, she will not get tanned in the summer.
Snowdrops are so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some countries the people will not have them in the house, lest they bring in death.
"

  From - "Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World." 1903

Snowdrop Boy on French Advertising Card
Snowdrop varieties, from 'Gardens Illustrated' magazine. Photo Clive Nichols
A  19th century French Advertising Card
From 'Gardens Illustrated' Feb 2014. Photos Clive Nichols



      

  There are several calendar festival dates associated with early February, a little later in more Northerly countries, when the snowdrops bloom, I will give only a brief description of them here.

Sybil barham postcard - 'Starred with Snowdrops'
'The Rich earth, black and bare,
Was starred with snowdrops everywhere'.
Artist Sybil Barham 1912


   February 1st:  (sometimes 2nd) is the festival of  'Brigid's Day' in tribute to the Goddess Brigid.. It is also the ancient celtic festival of 'Imbolc' or Imbolg' celebrating the beginning of Spring. The name comes from an even older word 'oimelc' meaning the milk of the ewe, therefore associated with the pure colour white.
It is a day for physical and spiritual spring cleansing. Later the date was dedicated to St Bride (Brigid, Brighid, Bridget) and four sided crosses known as 'Brigid's Crosses were plaited from rushes and kept in the house, crafted it is said, after one made by St Bride herself.
(You can find plenty more about St Bride's Day and how to make a Brigid cross here on my website.)

   February 2nd:    'Candlemass' or 'The feast of White Purification'. A Christian festival, remembering Mary's purification in the Temple at Jerusalem. It was believed (and still is in some parts of the world) that a woman who has given birth is 'unclean', and at around five weeks after the birth, by law, she must be ritually 'purified'. in her place of worship.
Some centuries after the life of Jesus, candles were used in procession to celebrate the day. Still later girls in white dresses would join the procession and snowdrops were strewn about the chutch altar. Families would bring their own candle to the church and light it from a central flame, where it would be blessed. (The candle is used as a symbol, standing to remind the congregation that on that day Simeon held the baby and made a first refernece to his being 'a light'.) (Luke 2: v29-32)  

Snowdrop Child by costume designer W.J.C Pitcher
Illustration by famous British costume designer William John Charles Pitcher
or 'Wilhelm' c1900

 

    February 14th was 'Lupercalia' (poss 13th - 15th) was a pagan Roman festival, supposedly held in Rome at the site where twine Romulus and Remus were suckled by the mother wolf. After sacfice of a goat and dog, chosen men known at Lupici dedicated themselves to purifying the city before 'The ides of March' or Roman new year. Later, this date was dedicated to St. Valentine.
'The Feast of Purification' was once celebrated on this day as the 40th day after Twelth Night (Epiphany), before the calendar changes of 1752.

  
    March 1st:  In Russia, Snowdrop Day is celebrated
. Legend tells that the tiny flowers are the tears of winter snow melting into spring and that they bloom only on that day, You must go out into the forests at sunrise in order to see them. Children pick bunches to give as gifts to parents and grandparents as a symbol of thanksgiving for the passing of winter.
There are 'First Day of Spring' celebrations on this day in many Northern countries (see 'Mârtisor' above).

 

.

 

The long-held, but no longer fashionable view of the snowdrop as a flower of sadness
is vividly expressed by 18th century writer and poet
Mary Robinson in her novel 'Walsingham' 1797

The Snowdrop

Snowdrop grave at Hunton Church, Kent ©vcsinden2014 

The snow-drop, Winter's timid child,
Awakes to life bedew'd with tears;
And flings around its fragrance mild,
And where no rival flowrets bloom,
Amidst the bare and chilling gloom,
A beauteous gem appears!  

All weak and wan, with head inclin'd,
Its parent breast, the drifted snow;
It trembles while the ruthless wind
Bends its slim form; the tempest lours,
Its em'rald eye drops crystal show'rs
On its cold bed below.   

Poor flow'r! On thee the sunny beam
No touch of genial warmth bestows;
Except to thaw the icy stream
Whose little current purls along,
Thy fair and glossy charms among,
And whelms thee as it flows.   

The night-breeze tears thy silky dress, 
Which, deck'd with silv'ry lustre, shone;
The morn returns, not thee to bless,
The gaudy crocus flaunts its pride,
And triumphs where its rival died,
Unshelter'd and unknown!   

No sunny beam shall gild thy grave,
No bird of pity thee deplore;
There shall no spreading branches wave,
For Spring shall all her gems unfold,
And revel 'midst her buds of gold,
When thou are seen no more!   

Where'er I find thee, gentle flow'r,
Thou still art sweet, and dear to me!
For I have known the cheerless hour,
Have seen the sun-beams cold and pale,
Have felt the chilling wint'ry gale,
And wept, and shrunk like thee !

 

  A short fairy tale:  
from "Land of the Happy Hours" by Stella Mead  
- first pub: James Nisbet & Co. Ltd  1929

How the Snowdrops Came   

   Fairies are never allowed to stray out of Fairyland during the winter-time. But when spring comes they may dance and play in the woods and meadows of the earth as long as they please, and at night they may sleep out in the wood, curled up in a bluebell or a buttercup.

   There was once a fairy called Silver Wing, who grew tired of waiting for the spring-time. One day early in February she whispered a secret to her playmates.

   She was going to run away from Fairyland and see what the earth looked like in winter-time. Her little friends said it would be great fun to go with her. As soon as supper was over the naughty little fairies slipped away in the dusk until they came to the first wood ourside Fairyland. For a long time they played there, looking very gay and pretty in their green silk frocks and white bonnets. But at last they crept into a bed of ivy leaves and went to sleep.

   When they awoke in the morning the ground was covered with soft snow, and a man whose coat was trimmed with hoar-frost, and whose cap had a border of glistening icicles, stood before them.

     The little fairies all felt quite frightened when they saw him. They trembled so that even their teeth chattered, for they knew that he was jack frost, and he was stern.

   "I don't allow fairies to come here during the winter-time." he said angrily.  "Why couldn't you keep away until 'Bluebell-time'?"

    To punish them for their naughtiness he turned them into flowers and kept them prisoners for three weeks and a day.

   Then he allowed them to go home; but every February they have to return for a few weeks, and the children of the earth call them snowdrops.

 


The Illustration, originally drawn for this story in 'Land of the Happy Hours'  is by my favourite fairy artist Helen Jacobs. It was also reproduced in 'The Tribute for the V.C's'  published by John Horn 1930.