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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.

Dom Prosper Guéranger, 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 (opens in a new page at Bible Gateway).

This feast is also celebrated as the Presentation of the Lord, when the infant Jesus was taken to the Temple by his parents according to Jewish custom. See Gospel of Luke 2: 22-39.

In many ways, Candlemas can be thought of a pivotal feast. It is forty days since Christmas and Lent is coming soon (Lent can begin as early as February 4 and as late as March 10 on the western Christian liturgical calendar; your mileage may vary). Likewise, the words of Simeon the Just at the Presentation reinforce the pivotal nature of this date. 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 beeswax candles and distributing the candles to clergy and the laity. The candles recall the lights of Christmas, and also symbolize Simeon's words to Mary and Joseph that Jesus would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."

According to "Candlemas" article at the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), 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 misletoe ;
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). 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! [1]

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; [2]

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. [3]

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 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.

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: A Christmas Mumming, 1377.

Footnotes:

1. 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

2. 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

3. 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:

See also: Advent - Resources for the Season

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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009
A new edition for 2010 is being prepared.

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson


Christmas is a wonderful, cheerful holiday.  Whether we spend it by a real tree or some Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, at the end of the day what matters is that we enjoy our time together with our loved ones. 


The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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