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Candlemas

In many cultures, including in some Latin countries today, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season. It is celebrated on February 2nd, the 40th day after Christmas, and is technically known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the Presentation in the Temple.

Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., wrote in 1871 that "We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year..."

The basis of the Feast of the Purification was the Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the Temple to worship. This was 40 days after the birth of a son and 60 days after the birth of a daughter. At the end of the 40 or 60 days, the mother was brought to the Temple or synagogue and ritually purified. Now she can go to religious services again, and generally go out in public. See Leviticus 12:2-8.

This feast is now celebrated as the Presentation of the Lord, when the infant Jesus was taken to the Temple by his parents according to Jewish custom. The Canticle of Simeon (or the Song of Simeon) is a moving account of one elderly Jewish man who was present in the Temple on that day. See: Nunc Dimittis - John Cennick.

In many ways, Candlemas can be thought of a pivotal feast. It is forty days since Christmas and Lent is coming soon (as early as February 4th?). Likewise, the words of Simeon at the Presentation reinforce this. The section on Candlemas at Oremus notes:

… the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will pierce, lead on to the passion and to Easter. The scriptures and the liturgy of the Christmas season have several pointers to the suffering of the Lord, but none more potent than the words of Simeon.

At Candlemas, there is also the traditional observance of blessing candles and distributing the candles to worshipers. The candles recall the lights of Christmas. The candles also symbolize Simeon's words to Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:32 that Jesus would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."

According to one source, this was also the day that by tradition all candles that would be used for the next year were blessed. Christians were observing Candlemas in Jerusalem as early as the 4th century A.D. By the middle of the 5th century, candles were lit on this day to symbolize that Jesus Christ was the light, the truth and the way. The feast spread slowly and wasn’t well known even in the 7th century.

Like Christmas, Candlemas also has its secular side. In some prosperous manors of old England, this extension of Christmas-tide was marked by music, dancing, games and feasting: A "Lord Of Misrule," or "abbot of unreason" was appointed, whose duty it was to play the part of a buffoon. In addition,

"The larder was filled with capons, hens, turkeys, geese, ducks, beef, mutton, pork, pies, puddings, nuts, plums, sugar and honey.... A glowing fire, made of great logs, the principal of which was termed the 'Yule log,' or Christmas block, which might be burnt till Candlemas eve, kept out the cold; and the abundance was shared by the lord's tenants amid music, conjuring, riddles, hot-cockles, fool-plough, snap-dragon, jokes, laughter, repartees, forfeits, and dances."

Many poems and carols celebrate Candlemas. By tradition, Candlemas eve was the date upon which all Christmas decorations were removed. The mid-17th century English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote at least four poems concerning Candlemas. In his "Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve," [Down With The Rosemary, And So] he wrote

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.

In his longer "Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve," [Down With The Rosemary and Bays] he wrote:

DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

This poem was adapted into a carol, Candlemas Eve Carol, set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Likewise, Candlemas day had its own traditions. In "Upon Candlemas Day," Herrick wrote:

END now the white loaf and the pie,
And let all sports with Christmas die.

Finally, in "The Ceremonies for Candlemas Day," [Kindle The Christmas Brand] he wrote:

Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn ;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year,
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

This latter poem celebrates the tradition that Christmas plants would be burned and the Yule Log was to be allowed to burn down completely, but that a portion should be held back to start next year’s Yule log (and as a good luck charm against "mischief"). The ashes were to be spread over the gardens to ensure a good harvest. Also, the Yule log for the next year would be chosen then.

And there is this poem from colonial Williamsburg, first published in the 18th Century:

When New Year's Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.

Candlemas was also believed to be a good day for weather forecasting (it falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox).1 If it were a sunny day, there would be forty more days of cold and snow. This belief has carried into folklore tradition in England, Scotland, Mexico, the United States (as Groundhog Day), in Germany (using a badger instead of a ground hog), and many other places. One English rhyme says:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.

In Western Europe, this was also the time for preparing the fields for the first planting.

Likewise, many carols of the period refer to Candlemas as the conclusion of the Christmas season.

In Christemas Hath Made An End, the singer laments the end of this Christmas-tide and the return to the fields:

Christemas hath made an end,
  Well-a-day! well-a-day!
Which was my dearest friend,
  More is the pity!
For with an heavy heart
Must I from thee depart,
To follow plow and cart
All the year after.

Keyte and Parrott, in The New Oxford Book of Carols, note that in the 17th century, there was little work to be done in the fields during winter, and that the Christmas-tide was, by nature, an extended holiday which could be lengthened to Candlemas (as in this carol), although rarely beyond Epiphany (January 6th).

The carol Farewell To Christmas begins:

Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day!2

The reference to Hallowtide comes from a tradition that the monarch would announce on All Hallows (November 1) where he or she would spend Christmas. There's a tradition I could live with! Celebrate the holidays from November 1 through February 2! See: Now Have Good Day, Now Have Good Day!

The carol Of The Purification concludes with:

Farewell, Christmas fair and free;
Farewell, New Years day with thee;
Farewell the holy Epiphany;3

Another carol, The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd, begins with:

Make we mirth
For Christ’s birth,
And sing we yule till Candlemas.

The last verse of this carol, which is an enumeration of the feasts of Christmas-tide, is:

On the xl [40] Day came Mary mild,
Unto the temple with her child,
To show her clean that never was defiled,
And therewith endeth Christmas.4

See also The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd and The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd - Thomas Wright.

But this is not just an old tradition, now forgotten. In many Latin countries, the tradition of Candlemas — especially as it relates to the celebration of the Three Kings — is still celebrated.

In Mexico, la Rosca de Reyes, a sweet circular cake is served with a doll baked inside representing the baby Jesus (similar to Mardi Gras Kings Cake) and is served with hot chocolate on Epiphany (known locally as Three Kings Day or El Dia de los Reyes Magos). The person who finds the baby in their slice is to host the forthcoming celebration Candelaria or Candlemas on February 2nd (when a feast of tamalitos and hot chocolate is enjoyed by all). According to an article in the Oaxaca Times by Gayle Hanson, when 20 or thirty people are on hand sometimes several babies are baked into the cake, all the better to spread out the cost of the next party among friends.

The Rosca de Reyes was used by the friars to evangelize: a small doll, representing the Christ child, is baked right in the bread — "hidden", to symbolize the hiding of the infant from King Herod's troops on the day of Los Santos Inocentes, the Holy Innocents [See: The Hymns Of The Holy Innocents].

As was the case in old England, it is on this day that the nativity scene and all the Christmas decorations are put away.

Note: See the following pages for additional information concerning Candlemas:

The poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) also had three poems concerning Candlemas which were reproduced in his “Hesperides,” first published in 1648. They are reproduced in Christmas Customs.

Finally, there is a small duet found in Enjoy Your Recorder by the Trapp Family Singers (Sharon, CN: Magnamusic Distributors, Inc., 1954, p. 43) titled "It Was Candlemas Day." They gave no author or other information concerning the tune.

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Footnotes:

1. Nor was Candlemas unique in this regard. At least two carols attribute weather forecasts to Christmas Day: Lordings, All Of You I Warn and If Christmas Day On The Sunday Be. Return

2. Songs, Carols, and other Miscellaneous Poems, from the Balliol MS. 354, ed. R. Dyboski, E. E. T. S., Extra ser., CI [1907], 18. This carol may also be found in Richard Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), Carol 38. Return

3. Of The Purification, found MS Eng. Poet. e I, (ed. Wright, as above, p. 57, "Of the Puryfycacion"). This carol may also be found in Richard Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), Carol 37. Return

4. MS Eng. Poet, e. I, printed Percy Society (ed. T. Wright), XXIII (London, 1848), 24. This carol; with some variants, is also found in MS Sloane 2593, printed Warton Club (ed. Wright; London, 1856), p. 98. Cf. Another similar carol in MS Sloane, "Wolcum be thou, hevene kynge," on p. 93 of the Warton Club’s printing, or in E. E. L., p. 232. This carol may also be found in Richard Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), Carol 3. Return

Sources:

  • Annie’s Candlemas Page
  • Christmas Then and Now [Website has disappeared]
  • Customs of the Weeks after Epiphany, Candlemas
  • Bill Egan, Christmas International group, in a message titled "Candlemas - End of the Christmas season," Monday, 03 Feb 2003 and Wednesday, 05 Feb 2003.
  • Merry Christmas!
  • Waverly Fitzgerald, School of the Seasons, Celebrating Candlemas
  • Groundhog’s Homepage [Website has disappeared]
  • Frederick G. Holweck, Catholic Encyclopedia, Candlemas
  • Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., "Le Temps de Noel," L’Annee Liturgique ["The Liturgical Year"] (3me ed.; Paris, 1871), I, 9-15.
  • Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • The Many Days of Christmas
  • Oremus, Candlemas
  • Gayle Hanson, "Christmas: The second season," Oaxaca Times
  • Edward Bliss Reed, Christmas Carols Printed in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932), Introduction, page xxx-xxxii
  • Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).
  • William S. Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs And of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous Antiquities (Lippincott Company, 1897), cited by Yule
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