Friday, January 24, 2020

Candlemas: Celebrating The Return Of The Light

February 2 marks one of my favorite liturgical observances and celebrations, Candlemas. Also known as The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and likewise,The Feast of the Presentation of Christ, Candlemas symbolizes the day when Mary went to the temple to be purified with her newborn son.

You might be more familiar with Groundhog's Day being observed on this day, but as with so many of our Americanized holidays and observances, its roots have a much deeper and symbolic meaning, which I'll outline in this post.

Depending on what part of the world you grew up in, Candlemas symbolizes a number of different events, or, in our home, a combination of them all.

The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Under Mosaic law, a woman was viewed as unclean for 7 + 33 days  40 days) after child birth, and as such, could not go into the temple. From the 25th of December, February 2 marks forty days.
See Leviticus 12:2-8, Luke 2:22-24

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ
But long before the Church in Rome began observing the day of purification, other branches of Christianity, such as the Greeks and the Armenians centered their observance around Christ first coming to the Temple, and was known as "the redeeming of the firstborn," or in Hebrew, pidyon ha-ben and is why this day is also known as The Feast of the Presentation of Christ.
See Exodus 13:2, 12-13, Numbers 18:15-16

It wasn't until some time in the 600's that the Roman Church began referring to the day as The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So while the Eastern Church focus was more upon Jesus, in the Western Church the emphasis was upon Mary. Today is primarily observed by the Anglican, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

The Feast of Light (Return of the Light) or The Feast of Candles
Though candles didn't really play much of a factor in the observance, some time in the 11th century the day came to be  commemorated as "The Feast of Light" ("Lichtmess" in German) or "Feast of the Candles" ("Candelaria" in Spanish, and "La Fête de la Chandeleur" in French)  based upon the prophecy of Holy Simeon -- the "just and devout" man of Jerusalem who was inspired by the Holy Ghost to know that he would live to see the "consolation of Jerusalem" -- and the encounter with the aged widow, Anna the Prophetess, who lived in the Temple and confessed Christ upon meeting Him.  In Luke 2:32 Simeon referred to Jesus as "the light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of people Israel."

In keeping with the reference to "the light", the tradition of blessing the annual supply of the Church's candles was established. Beeswax candles were blessed by being sprinkled with water and having incense swung around them, and were then distributed among the members.  Today, parishioners bring their own beeswax candles to be blessed. In some churches, the blessing is the followed by a procession in which people carry lighted candles while the choir sings. The procession represents the entry of Jesus as light of the world into the temple. Afterwards, church members take their candles home and place them in their windows as a symbol of light during the darkest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

There are a few of the symbols and traditions associated with Candlemas, as well;

Doves
Doves are a symbol of Candlemas, as they were offered by Joseph and Mary as a sacrifice at the presentation. Their symbolism is significant, as they were poor and unable to afford a lamb for sacrifice. Traditionally, those who were unable to do so were allowed to offer a pair of doves instead.

Snowdrops
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are also known as "Candlemas Bells" because, being the earliest to bloom in the depths of winter, and often shortly before Candlemas, though some varieties bloom all winter long in some places. Legend says that they sprang up by the hand of an angel, who then pointed them out as a sign of hope to Eve, who was weeping in repentance and in despair over the cold and death that entered into the world after she and her husband sinned. Because our Hope is Christ, the Light as referred to by Simeon ,it is providential that the snowdrop should bloom so close to this feast day. If possible, gather some Candlemas Bells to bring inside. Legend tells that bringing them indoors before this date is bad luck, and bringing them indoors on this day "purifies" one's house. These flowers, along with carnations, are also the "birth flower" for those born in January.

And while most of us have taken all of our Christmas decorations down by now, some people do hold on to them until February.

Taking Down the Final Remnants of Christmastide
The eve of this Feast is the absolutely last (and best) day for taking down the Christmas tree, putting away the creche, etc. In some Latin countries, the creche isn't just put away, but is replaced with a figure of the Child Jesus sitting on a chair, acting as a sign that it is time for the devotion to the Divine Childhood to give way to a focus on the grown-up Savior and the public ministry, forty days of fasting, and Passion to come.

In any case, when Candlemas is finished, all feelings of Christmas give way to the penitential feelings of Septuagesima and then Lent. The English poet, Robert Herrick (A.D. 1591-1674), sums it up in his poem "Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve" -- and reveals a folktale in the process:







Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

The very ancient carol, below, also speaks of the departure of Christmas on this day. It is called "I Am Christmas," and was written by James Ryman, a Franciscan Friar, ca. 1492. The reference to Hallowtide (the days of the dead centering around All Saints Day) here refers to the fact that it was during Hallowtide that monarchs used to announce where they would be spending Christmas.

I Am Christmas

Here have I dwelled with more or lass
From Hallowtide till Candelmas,
And now must I from you hens pass;
Now have good day.

I take my leve of king and knight,
And erl, baron, and lady bright;
To wilderness I must me dight;
Now have good day!

And at the good lord of this hall
I take my leve, and of gestes all;
Me think I here Lent doth call;
Now have good day!

And at every worthy officere,
Marshall, panter, and butlere
I take my leve as for this yere;
Now have good day!

Another yere I trust I shall
Make mery in this hall,
If rest and peace in England fall;
Now have good day!

But oftentimes I have herd say
That he is loth to part away
That often biddeth 'Have good day!";
Now have good day!

Now fare ye well, all in fere,
Now fare ye well for all this yere;
Yet for my sake make ye good chere;
Now have good day!

Some likewise view this day as the first official day to symbolize the return of spring, but because our biggest snowfalls in my neck of the woods are often in March and even as late as April, mentally, I'm just not there yet. However, I do keep a phenology wheel and because of that, I am very aware of how the days are lengthening and the light truly is returning.

Groundhog's Day
As I mentioned earlier, Candlemas Day is also known as "Groundhog's Day" in America, the day when, if the groundhog sees his shadow, there'll be 6 more weeks of winter. There is a similar belief in Europe about how Candlemas weather foretells the length of winter. The English have a saying, "If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year." The Germans also have a few sayings about how the weather at Candlemas bodes ill or well for the nearness of Spring:

When the bear sees
his shadow at Candlemas,
he will crawl back into his
hole for another six weeks.

or this one;

If Candlemas is mild and pure,
Winter will be long for sure.

And finally;

If it storms and snows on Candlemas day
Spring will not be far away.
If Candlemas is bright and clear,
Spring is not yet near.

In our home we've used a variation on these poems;

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.

But I also came across this lovely little poem just this week, which is so much like the poems we've traditionally used during Advent that I wish I'd found it when the girls were young.  At any rate, if you followed along with my Advent plans last year, perhaps you'll enjoy it.

Candle, candle burning bright,
Winter's halfway done tonight.
With a glowing, we are knowing,
Spring will come again!

While Punxsutawny Phil is fun, personally I much prefer the loveliness of Candlemas.

Ideas For Observing Candlemas
If you want to conduct an actual Candlemas Ceremony, you'll find an outline here.

- Let children roll and make their own beeswax candles, or if you want to get really adventurous, perhaps make some by dipping them a few days ahead.  Here's a kit for making your own rolled candles, or you and also purchase them ready made. I also love these orange peel candles, so beautiful how so many of the same elements are used in decorations from Advent through to the days before Lent. If you do make your own candles, here's another lovely poem to share with the littles in your life.

“A candle’s but a simple thing, it starts with just a bit of string. But dipped and dipped with patient hand, it gathers wax upon the strand. Until complete and snowy white, it gives at last a lovely light. Life seems so like that bit of string, each deed we do a simple thing. Yet day by day on life’s strand, we work with patient heart and hand. It gathers joy, makes dark days bright and gives at last a lovely light.”

- Light candles and set them in the windows. You can use the electric or battery operated ones that are popular at Christmas for safety.

- Go on a nature walk and try to locate some snowdrops. If possible, bring a few in and put them in a vase.

- This candle ring is particularly pretty, especially with the sun in the middle symbolizing the return of the light and lengthening days.  You could easily make one out of bread dough, even just a small one using birthday candles. There are twelve candles around the outer ring, one of each month in the year and then the sun candle in the middle.  If you want to make it a little bigger, you could use emergency candles which I usually purchase from the dollar store. It might make a pretty centerpiece for your table to share a special meal.

Traditional Food
Traditionally foods associated with Candlemas are crepes and pancakes because of their round and golden texture, symbolic of the sun (light).  I've never made crepe's, but I do love pancakes, especially buttermilk pancakes!

But this year, I've actually got my eye on these Bacon and Corn Griddle Cakes.

But if breakfast food isn't what you're looking for, in Mexico, tamales are the candlemas tradition! But then again, tamales can be a LOT of work, so instead, you could try out one of these.

My personal favorite, Chicken Tamale Casserole, a dish I've made MANY times! So easy, and so good! But if you'd prefer beef, this recipe looks good, too, Tamale Pie.

You could make these Mexican Cookie Rings with the littles in your life and let them decorate them with bright, festive sprinkles and serve them with Mexican Hot Chocolate.  You could also make simple cut out sugar cookies in the shape of a dove, perhaps sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

I also love the idea of this Cardamom Coffee Bread Wreath, it would be lovely topped with some small candles and perfectly fitting!

Well, I hope by now I've given you enough history and plenty of ideas for celebrating! Candlemas is such a lovely celebration, and as with so many other aspects of The Year of the Lord, filled with deep meaning and symbolism.  I hope you will try out a few of these ideas and savor in the beauty of this lovely day with your family.

"No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow!"


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