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.)

Suggested reading
Light a candle; spring is coming

By Ed West

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.