Candlemas: The Festival of Light and Purification
By Robert Newland.
The 2nd February has long been held in the Christian calendar as “The Feast Of Our Lady, The Blessed Virgin Mary” otherwise known as Candelora or Candlemas. It derived from the ceremony which the Church of Rome dictates to be observed on this day; namely the blessing of candles by the clergy and their distribution to mothers who had borne children during the previous year, whom afterwards process around the church in solemn procession. The ceremony commemorates when the Virgin Mary, in obedience to Jewish law, went to the Temple of Jerusalem, both to be purified and to present the Christ Child, “The Light of the World” to God as her firstborn.
There is some debate as to when exactly the ceremony was first established, though by the Middle Ages it was performed throughout Christendom. After the Reformation during the reign of Edward VI the practice of consecrating candles was forbidden, yet in spite of disapproving reformers the much-loved ceremony continued. Even the repressive Puritans who condemned all such customs as “Popish” could not obliterate it either.
However, the word “Purification” carries in its original meaning the idea of cleansing by fire, rather than Jesus Christ being the Spiritual Light and therefore the origins of Candlemas predate Christianity and lie in the pagan Roman festival of FEBRUALIA, and the ancient Celtic festival of IMBOLGC, pronounced as em-bowlg.
Februalia was the Roman festival of Purification, held on the 15th February in honour of Februa the goddess of purification, and mother of Mars; and after whom the month of February is named. The people of Rome celebrated the dedication of her temple on Palatine Hill with a nighttime procession of candles and blazing torches.
There is a legend of Sabine origin that explains this curious rite. The legend states that after the rape of the Sabine women, the raped wives were left sterile. The men and women then went to pray for a cure in a forest consecrated to Februa. Her voice sounded in the rustling leaves, replying that the women must be joined with a sacred goat. However, the people were dismayed at the thought of such a joining and would not do it. An Etruscan soothsayer solved the dilemma by sacrificing a goat to Februa and making a thick leather strap from its hide. He ordered the young women to offer themselves to the blows of the strap. The women complied with the dictates of the goddess and thereby overcame the infertility curse.
Imbolgc, meaning “ewes milk” was the festival held on 2nd February and heralded the start of the lambing season. Celtic people saw it as a time of hope and new beginnings. They believed the young goddess Bride of youth and fertility whom was held captive each year by the winter, was released or re-born at Imbolgc. Huge fires were lit in celebration to summon the return of light and new birth, which followed in Bride’s footsteps.
Over time these two ancient festivals somewhat emerged together but when Christianity became established, the church, in order to convert the heathens took advantage of the old pagan festivals and adopted them into the Christian calendar thus replacing the old goddesses with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Christian worship grew and eventually became the dominant religion it is today, but the distant memories of the old festivals lingered and became incorporated into folklore customs.
Candlemas became a time for family gatherings at which a specially large candle would be lit at sunset, around it all present would gather and feast in celebration of the returning daylight until the candle’s self extinguishing brought the festivities to a close.
Candle leaping as a form of fortune telling was also practised at Candlemas, which possibly engendered this rhyme.
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jumped over
A candlestick with a lighted candle was placed on the floor and if, when jumping over it, the light was not extinguished, good luck was supposed to follow during the coming year.
In some farming communities the custom of setting up what was known as a “Bride’s Bed” was practised. A sheaf of barley or corn that had been left over from the last harvest was dressed up in a young girls white smock to symbolise a virgin, and was put to bed as it were in a large wicker basket with a wooden club to symbolise male fertility, and the Bride’s Bed was placed by the threshold. Once in place the occupants of the house would call a welcome three times into the darkness outside. “Bride is welcome, Bride is come.” The next morning the ashes of the hearth were examined. If there were signs of disturbance it showed that Bride had been, and this was seen as a good omen for a prosperous harvest, but no disturbance was seen as the opposite.
Candlemas has also long been a time for weather predictions so as to discover if the winter was passed or whether it was going to persist until the spring equinox.
Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Candlemas in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Evidently so called from the candles or lights which were distributed and carried about in older times upon that day William Hone in his Every-Day Book, vol. i, p. 107 (1826), gives the foloowing from a Dorset source. He speaks of a gentleman having communicated a custom which he had witnessed at lyme regis in his juvenile days. To what extent it prevailed he was unable to say, his knowledge being limited to the domestic circle wherein he was included. He says :—"Down with the rosemary and bays, Down with the mistletoe," etc.
" The wood-ashes of the family being sold throughout the year as they were made, the person who purchased them annually sent a present on Candlemas-day of a large candle. When night came the candle was lighted, and, assisted by its illumination, the inmates regaled themselves with cheering draughts of ale and sippings of punch, or some other animating beverage, until the candle had burnt out. The coming of the Candlemas candle was looked forward to by the young ones as an event of some consequence ; for, of usage, they had a sort of right to sit up that night and partake of the refreshment till all retired to rest, the signal for which was the self-extinction of the Candlemas candle."
Candlemas Day — or Eve — was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holly, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down in accordance with Herrick's well-known lines :—
But care should be taken that they are not thrown away as ordinary rubbish, but should be entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out. (conf. Shropshire Folk-Lore, p.245.)
In Dorsetshire, apparently, Candlemas Day is mostly known to the rustic public as affording portents or omens of what the weather is likely to be for the rest of the winter, as shown by what it is on Candlemas Day. If Candlemas Day is a fine day, winter is to come ; if it's a middling day, winter is half over ; it it's a very rough day, winter is past.
Another and rhythmical form of this belief was sent to me years ago, together with several other interesting items of Dorset folk-lore, by the late Rev. W. K. Kendall, of East Lulworth, himself an early member of the Dorset Field Club.
"If Candlemas Day be fair and fine,
Half the winter is left behin'.
If Candlemas Day do bluster and blow,
The winter is o'er, as all good people do know."
Yet another instance of mild weather at Candlemas being taken as a harbinger of something more severe later on is furnished by the old saying that " as much ground as the sun shines on on Candlemas Day will be covered with snow before Lady Day ".
The late Mr. Hugh Norris, of South Petherton, for many years Somerset editor of The Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (vol. i, pp. 160-2), gives a list of some West Country weather proverbs, from which I extract his version of the above saying, clothed in a rich vernacular — perhaps a little more
Somerset than Dorset—" Za much groun' as ez cove'd wi'zun pon Cannelmas Day '11 be cove'd wi' znaw avore Laady Day."
In the following instance relating to Candlemas, furnished to Notes and Queries in 1872 (Ser. IV, x, 82) by F. C. H. (the well known Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authority, the late Dr. F. C. Husenbeth), attention is called to the alteration in these old dates — a fact, I am afraid, generally ignored — caused by the introduction of the New Style. He says:
" In Dorsetshire people anxiously look for the dew-drops hanging thickly on the thorn-bushes on Candlemas morning. When they do, it forebodes a good year for peas. But these weatherwise seers are apt to forget that all these old saws were adapted to the Old Style, according to which what used to be Candlemas is now St. Valentine. N'importe, the weather prophet coolly moves on his peg and goes on predicting with equal confidence."