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It hadn’t occurred to me to write about this feast day until this week.

French radio this week has been loaded with adverts for crêpes, Nutella, cidre (mildly alcoholic cider) and rum (this particular brand from Bardinet distillers). What’s the occasion?

Candlemas — or in French, La Chandeleur — falls on February 2. This is a time to meet with friends and eat crêpes — with rum in the batter — and enjoy them with a glass or two of cidre. (Television adverts from France make a point of instructing the British not to say ‘cider’!)

As a youngster, I always confused it with St Blaise Day, which is February 3. Any of us who has done that can be forgiven, as church candles are blessed on Candlemas and priests bless throats of the faithful with two beeswax candles arranged in an X the day after. On the nearest weekend, these feasts are sometimes combined at Mass.

This feast is commemorated by Catholic and some Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox (celebrated two weeks later) churches. February 2 recalls two events: a) Jesus’s formal Presentation in the Temple and b) Mary’s return to the Temple after childbirth, which carried over into Christianity as a ceremony called the Churching of Women, more about which in another post.

Old Testament Jewish law

Candlemas is always on February 2 because it is 40 days after Christmas and the date when Jewish ceremonies for mother and male child are performed. According to Jewish law (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15), Mary would have had to complete her ritual purification prior to accompanying Joseph and Jesus to the Temple. The presence of the infant Jesus, although circumcised and formally named (January 1), was required so that the priests could conduct the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn. In those days, Mary and Joseph would also have brought an animal sacrifice. Better-off families would have brought a lamb. The Holy Family brought two doves, the option for poorer couples.

New Testament account from St Luke’s Gospel

Two older Jews were present when Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child entered the Temple. A good, devout man — Simeon — prayed over Jesus. His prayer became known as the Nunc Dimittis (or Canticle of Simeon). It can be found in Luke 2:29-32:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen Jesus.

Anna the Prophetess, a wise and pious widow, was also present in the Temple.

Giotto Wikipedia 220px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-19-_-_Presentation_at_the_TempleThis is Luke’s account, which includes both Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38). The painting by the early Renaissance painter Giotto (courtesy of Wikipedia) illustrates this solemn ceremony (emphases mine):

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The Eastern Orthodox Church remembers both Anna and Simeon on February 3 or 16, depending on the calendar used, because, as Luke’s Gospel says, Jesus met Israel, as personified by these two faithful servants of God.

Candlemas in the early Church

Between 381 and 384, Egeria, a nun from the early days of the Church, attended a Divine Liturgy in Jerusalem and recorded that the sermon was based on Luke 2:22. However, there did not seem to be a name for the feast at that time. She wrote back to the other sisters at her convent:

XXVI. “The fortieth day after the Epiphany [February 14, as Christmas would have been celebrated on January 6 at the time] is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”

Nearly two centuries later, in 541, a plague was devastating Constantinople. Emperor Justinian I ordered that the Christian faithful pray on this day for the deliverance from evil and an end to the plague. The following year, by way of thanksgiving, the Emperor declared this feast a solemn one to be observed throughout the Byzantine — Eastern — Empire.

Late in the 4th century, this feast’s date was moved to the current day of February 2. This was because Rome had declared that Christmas would henceforth be celebrated on December 25. However, it some time passed before the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple took root in Western Europe.

These days, Candlemas is the date by which Christmas clingers-on must take down their decorations. Nonetheless, the feast brings imagery of candles, flames and ashes. These traditions will be covered below. In an ecclesiastical context, however, the Benedictional of St Aethelwold — Bishop of Winchester — includes a blessing for candles to be used at church services. Today, the priest still blesses a year’s worth of candles.

European agricultural and pagan customs

Western unbelievers will argue that the Church somehow stole this date from European agrarian and pagan traditions. Quite possibly. However, ‘stole’ might not be quite the correct term. It seems that the Early and Mediaeval Church might have wished to move feasts to days which were already ‘marked’ in the calendar by much of the population of Europe.

This could be because of the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia. However, opinion is divided. Whatever the case, an atavistic significance seems to have been attached to this particular day across the Continent and the British Isles.

February 2 was the day when farmers removed cattle from the hay meadows which were to be ploughed for springtime planting. In Scotland, it was — and still is — a quarter day for paying off debt and submitting rent which is due. In Armenia, farmers scattered ash over their fields for a better crop yield;  people even kept ashes on their roofs to ward off evil spirits. Young married women were encouraged to purify themselves by jumping over bonfires in order to ensure a sound pregnancy. Young men needed to do the same. Sailors feared setting sail on this day for fear their vessel might sink.

Among the ancient Celts, February 2 was the pagan feast of Imbolc, involving their totemic Brigid. Many of her attributes have since been ascribed to the sainted abbess, Brigid of Kildare.

Scots also have a saying related to the ancient pagan Brigid:

The serpent will come from the hollow on the brown day of Bridget / Though there should be three feet of snow on the flat surface of the ground.

Today’s pagans continue to celebrate this date because it is the astronomical midpoint between winter and the spring thaw.

Groundhog Day, starring Punxatawney Phil (the groundhog from the eponymous Pennsylvania town), goes back to the Pennsylvania Dutch (of German extraction). From the 1841 diary of storekeeper James Morris we learn that:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

So, it would seem that God granted everyone — believers and unbelievers — some knowledge of what to remember or to look out for on February 2.

Is it Jesus or Mary who is celebrated?

Some church traditions venerate Jesus on this day, others the Virgin Mary. Pope Innocent XII (1615 – 1700) decided in favour of Mary, in direct opposition to Lupercalian traditions. He wrote:

Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.[10]

Protestants commemorating this feast put more weight on it being the feast of our Lord’s first presentation at the Temple.

Other ancient European customs

Various European countries have other traditions and superstitions relating to February 2.

I mentioned the French and their crêpe parties. Apparently, these sweet delights should be eaten only after 8 p.m. Anyone flipping them in the pan whilst holding a gold coin in the other assures their family of good luck that year. Oh my!

Yet, it was at this time that early Christian pilgrims received crêpes on their pilgrimages to Rome. Extra flour from the previous season which would have gone off was used to make them. In that way, no flour went to waste.

The French, like the Germans and Americans, also have sayings concerning February 2 and the weather. Here are two:

On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens.

Dew on Candlemas, winter at its final hour.

In Italy, La Candelora signals the last cold day of winter.

In the Canary Islands, residents remember Mary, the Virgin of Candelaria — their patron saint.

In parts of Latin America, whoever ‘won’ the coin or token from the Epiphany cake must pay for a meal featuring tamales.

For those countries or regions with festivals leading up to Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday — their parade season starts around now.

I realise that people will think it sinful for such syncretic (a mix of the diametrically opposed)  information to appear on a Christian blog. However, like it or not, we are a world of nations made up of various influences dating from our earliest days.

I can appreciate if you think this is wrong, and I can understand your reasoning. I’m not asking you to condone the syncretic; this is merely an explanation of why some Christians do the things they do in the run up to Lent.

Tomorrow: St Blaise Day – February 3

Monday: The Churching of Women

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