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Light a candle; spring is coming After a winter that has felt endless, Candlemas is here

A Candlemas service at Ripon Cathedral in 2018. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

A Candlemas service at Ripon Cathedral in 2018. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images


February 2, 2021   5 mins

By early February, Christmas can feel like a distant memory. This year especially, with no end to lockdown in sight, cold grey January seemed to go on forever. Here and there you might have seen houses with their Christmas lights still up — and right now, who can blame them for seeking a little extra light in the darkness? In fact, people who are still holding on to Christmas are following an ancient custom. The traditional end of the festive season isn’t until Candlemas, today, on February 2 — the last feast of Christmastide and the first feast of spring.

Many people are used to a Christmas season which begins around the start of December and, if you are lucky, lasts until early January. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the Middle Ages, and for centuries afterwards, most celebrations were concentrated within the Twelve Days of Christmas — December 25 to January 6 — but celebrations continued throughout the whole of January. Short days and bad weather limited the work that could be done anyway, and the general gloom made festivity all the more welcome — much more cheerful than Dry January.

Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas, was the time to at last take down the decorations, “down with the rosemary and bays, down with the mistletoe”, as the 17th century poet Robert Herrick writes in ‘Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve’. But it was also a time to celebrate a festival of light and hope. The feast commemorates an event from Christ’s early childhood, narrated in the Gospel of Luke. As the firstborn son of his mother, Jesus was taken by his parents to be presented in the Temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with Jewish law.

There, Jesus and his parents were met by an elderly man and woman, Simeon and Anna, who recognised the baby as the Messiah for whom they had long been waiting. Holding the child in his arms, Simeon spoke a prayer — the Nunc Dimittis, which has become part of the daily cycle of Christian prayer, repeated night after night for many centuries: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation
”

The date was set by the law of Moses, which stipulated that a woman should be ritually purified 40 days after giving birth to a son, marking the end of the dangerous postpartum period. And so Candlemas celebrates both the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

Candlemas has been celebrated since the fourth century in the Eastern church, the seventh century in the West. The 40-day Christmas season is one of the ways in which the Christian church year, in its early medieval development, was influenced by Jewish practice: significant periods of 40 days feature several times in the Bible, and that unit of time forms the basis of the church’s seasons at Christmas, Lent and Easter. (Forty days was similarly used as a convenient period in medieval law, and that gave us a word we’ve been hearing a lot this year: quarantine. It derives from the medieval convention of a 40-day period of isolation to stop the spread of disease.)

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The English name Candlemas is first recorded in the late Anglo-Saxon period, and is paralleled in other languages — in France it’s la Chandeleur. It refers to the most distinctive custom of the feast: people would bring candles to church to be blessed, carry them in procession, then take the candles home with them and keep them all year. The association with light was inspired by the words of Simeon’s prayer, which hails Christ as “a light to lighten the Gentiles”. The act of bringing candles to church and taking them out into the world again re-enacts the Gospel story of the Presentation, with each little candle flame representing the light of the baby Christ.

That symbolism made Candlemas a very popular feast with which to round off winter, as we start to emerge into the world after months of darkness. It helps that 40 days after Christmas coincides with a significant point in the solar year, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In the Middle Ages, this time in early February was often considered to be the beginning of spring: the days are getting longer, the light is growing stronger, and the earliest flowers are starting to appear — especially snowdrops, traditionally known as ‘Candlemas bells’. In northern Europe, it was a natural time for a festival of light.

Candlemas marks a turning-point, looking both back to Christmas and forward to the spring. It’s a time for weather-lore, as an old rhyme says:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.

Such forecasting is best known now from the related American tradition, Groundhog Day, which is celebrated across North America on February 2nd. The tradition was imported by immigrants from Germanic parts of Europe, where Candlemas was also known as ‘Badger Day’. The story goes that if a badger comes out of its burrow today and sees its shadow, because the weather is “fair and bright”, it will return to the ground and winter will continue. If it doesn’t see its shadow, because the weather is grey, winter “is gone and will not come again.”

A number of medieval carols imagine Christmas finally bidding farewell at Candlemas and directing our attention onwards to the year ahead. One has Christmas saying:

Here have I dwelt with more and less [i.e. with everyone] From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from you hence pass;
Now have good day!

He’s describing a Christmastide lasting from November 1 to February 2: the darkest and coldest months of the year were all meant to be cheered by Christmas brightness, from the bell-ringing of Hallowtide to the lights of Candlemas. And now the darkness is over. It’s time to look ahead.

In this carol Christmas says he can hear Lent calling, so it’s his cue to be on his way. Candlemas and Ash Wednesday often fall close together — sometimes they’re separated by just a few days. This year, it’s two weeks, which feels appropriate. Candlemas is a festival of hope and the coming spring, but it’s a hope coloured by full knowledge of suffering. Simeon says to Mary, as he holds her baby in his arms, that because of this child “a sword will pierce your soul” — a reference to Christ’s death and the grief his mother will experience for his sake. Simeon and Anna themselves are close to death, and will not live to see this baby come to adulthood.

So Candlemas is about the meeting between birth and death, love and grief, winter and spring, childhood and old age. Images of the Presentation usually show aged Simeon taking the baby into his arms, and one of the texts sung at Candlemas muses on this meeting: “The old man carried the child, but the child guided the old man”.

This year such images might call to mind one of the most painful prohibitions of lockdown, which has cut off the young from the old and stopped grandparents from holding their grandchildren. But children, even if their grandparents never get to hold them, carry the hopes of their elders — bearing onwards in time a hope for a future the old may never see. And if Simeon’s words to Mary are a reminder that grief is the price we pay for love, the light of Candlemas is a promise that it’s a price worth paying.

A key element of Candlemas, the blessing of candles, was suppressed at the Reformation, but in recent years it’s been making a comeback in many churches. Even this year, in lockdown, Candlemas can easily be celebrated. Light a candle — that’s all it takes. It might be just a tiny flame, flickering and fragile, as vulnerable as the youngest baby or the oldest among us. But in a winter that feels endless, it may yet be a sign that spring is coming.


Eleanor Parker is a historian and medievalist. She is a columnist at History Today.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

Thank you, Eleanor Parker, for this uplifting (and educational) article!

The forecast here is for lots of rain on February 2, so I hope the old rhyme is correct:

“If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.”

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s been tipping it down here since the early hours. Winter had blooming well *better* go, because it’s lasted since the end of spring! Here’s hoping.

Peter Lockyer
Peter Lockyer
3 years ago

What a lovely piece. It’s been such a terrible 12 months with friends and loved ones separated and dying. I was talking with a French friend yesterday who said she felt that her life had been put in brackets the last year. But Candlemas is a real symbol of hope, and that the darkness can never overcome the light.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Thank you, a lovely piece. I left the lights up this year, as did one or two neighbours – seemed only right to provide a little cheer this January. They can come down tonight, in the sure hope that we have turned the corner

Gary Cole
Gary Cole
3 years ago

Lovely article!

karenwarrendesign
karenwarrendesign
3 years ago

Thank you. I think I’ll light a candle now

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

One more step out of the darkness – needed by us all. Thanks.

There’s a whole pre-christian history to the festival, too. Though I’m not anywhere near knowledgeable enough to comment on its accuracy. It holds that Imbolc was a festival half way between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox celebrating the return of life to the earth and associated with the Goddess Brig (St Brigid in Christian terms).

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

You’re right, Mark, and it’s part of the genius of early Christianity that the best of the ancient customs could be assimilated and even used to enhance the scriptural message. Imbolc seems to have meant “ewe’s belly” (or womb) and coincided with the start of the lambing season. The Goddess Brig/Bride presided over the birth of lambs and babies (often invoked during childbirth), but also fire, hearth and smithcraft, and poetry and healing. At her festival at the beginning of February, spring was born, and old customs were kept in the Hebrides up to the end of the 19th century in which little reed images of Bride and “Bride’s crosses” were made to bless and protect the community, and “the serpent” (badger or groundhog or dragon?) emerged from the earth and winter fled away.
“Bride put her finger in the river/ on the feast day of Bride/and away flew the hatching-mother of the cold” (Carmina Gaedelica).

Candlemas draws on a synthesis of the beautiful, powerful story from St. Luke’s Gospel with these nature-based traditions of welcoming the new light and hope of spring.

This is an excellent and uplifting article – a joy to read it today.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Nice.

Patrick Heren
Patrick Heren
3 years ago

Thank you Eleanor

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
3 years ago

Lovely Eleanor.

Sax Guy
Sax Guy
3 years ago

Well that lit me up!
Thanks.