Category Archives: Candlemas

The Bridge: Winter to Spring

Even in our contemporary, mostly urban, not so agrarian age, as distanced as we’ve become from nature and its rhythms, still, we have a pretty good understanding of the seasons. We know about solstices, we know about equinoxes, we know when spring has come and summer, fall, and winter. But we have, in general, lost touch with some handy units of measure: the cross quarter days. The cross quarter days mark the approximate halfway point between solstice and equinox. If we think of the year as a clock, and if we place the December solstice at 12 and the June solstice at 6, and if we place the March equinox at 3 and the September equinox at 9… well, we can divide things a little further and place the four cross quarter days at 1:30, 4:30, 7:30, and 10:30.

Traditionally, the cross quarter days are marked by holydays/holidays. The one we most recently celebrated was at the end of October and start of November: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day––the Days of the Dead. We were approaching winter; life was descending below the earth. As February begins, we reach the next period of cross quarter days, marked by St. Brigid’s Day on the 1st and on the 2nd, Candlemas and Groundhog Day. This period marks the first stirrings of earth’s awakening on the approach to spring. Winter still has a firm grip, to be sure (it was 28 below zero at my aunt’s house in Illinois just last night)… but one thing to keep in mind with these traditional ways of reckoning time is they are always a small step ahead of the game. In this reckoning, the equinox in March will mark the height of spring… and so spring’s beginnings start here, as January melts into February. St. Brigid, sacred to Ireland and second in stature there only to St. Patrick, is honored on the First of the month. In the older earthbound religions, the day honors the Celtic goddess Brigid and brings the season of Imbolc. As the goddess goes, the old crone of winter is reborn now as the young maiden, for this is a time of renewal. The seeds that were planted beneath the earth last fall are preparing to bring forth lush green life, once spring truly arrives.

If you’ve been holding on to Christmas, this is the time to let it go. In some traditions, tonight marks the end of the Christmas season. Indeed, it is considered bad luck to have any remnants of Christmas greenery in the house beyond Candlemas Eve, which also comes this first night of February. Candlemas is the day that candles are blessed in the church, but it is also known as Purification Day, which harkens back to an old Hebrew tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, women would go to the temple to be purified. Again, renewal. And so Mary did this, for it was her tradition, and when she did, it was there at the temple that she and her infant child ran into the elders Simeon and Anna, who recognized the child as “the Light of the World.” Spring may be coming as we find ourselves forty days past midwinter, but the darkness of those darkest nights still closely lingers, and that light is still a powerful metaphor. One of my favorite Candlemas traditions is to go through the house at sunset, lighting every lamp, even for just a few minutes. Follow that with a meal of crepes (a European Candlemas tradition) or tamales and hot chocolate (the tradition in Mexico). One of the finest songs for this day and for those who follow these ways is an old carol called “Jesus, the Light of the World.” Candlemas is an old weather marker, too. As the old saying goes: If the sun shines bright on Candlemas day / The half of the winter’s not yet away. And while Candlemas itself is not paid much attention these days here in the States, this remnant of the day remains in our tradition of Groundhog Day.

The photo above is of St. Brigid’s Well at Cullion, County Westmeath, in Ireland. The cross above the name is a St. Brigid’s Cross, and it is traditional on her day to fashion crosses in this shape from reeds. Photograph by Laineylee [2015, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons].


Light Every Lamp

Throughout Mexico tonight, the dinner table will, for many, include tamales and hot chocolate, while in many parts of Europe, crepes will be on the menu. And at sunset, we’ll light every lamp in the house. It’s Candlemas. We are emerging from the darkness of Yuletide as the seasonal round of the year shifts from winter toward spring.

Candlemas is the day of blessing of candles in the Church, forty days past Christmas, with great processions of candles lit and born aloft, a light for the world. It is known as well as Purification Day, which comes out of an old Jewish tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, mothers would go to the temple to be purified. You might think of it as renewal, fitting for this time of year, the approach to spring. Not without coincidence, it was just yesterday, as Imbolc began, that the earth goddess was renewed as well, as our planet is now halfway on its yearly journey between the solstice of midwinter and the equinox of spring. And so the story goes that Mary went to the temple to be purified, carrying her newborn son, and it was there that she met the elders Anna and Simeon. Simeon recognized the child immediately as the light of the world, and this is the basis for the blessing of candles on this day, and the day’s lovely name.

One of the most beautiful and elaborate Candlemas celebrations is in the city of Puno in Peru. The photo above is of the Candlemas celebration there two years ago. The celebration in Puno and many other places in Peru, Bolivia, and other parts of South America will continue on for the better part of two weeks.

Candlemas is perhaps the most well known weather marker of the year: Here in the US, Candlemas isn’t much on our radar, but we do know the day as Groundhog Day. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow as he crawls up out of his burrow, it’ll mean 40 days more of winter; if he sees no shadow, then it will be an early spring. This weather lore comes out of much older weather marking traditions related to the Second of February, but which all seem to offer the same wisdom––that a bright and sunny Candlemas Day means a longer winter, while a dark and cloudy one means welcome warmth will soon be on its way:

If the sun shines bright on Candlemas Day,
The half of the winter’s not yet away.

Tomorrow, the 3rd of February, brings St. Blaise’s Day. St. Blaise protects against maladies of the throat. On his feast day, priests will bless each member of their congregation by invoking a prayer to St. Blaise while holding two unlit candles in one hand about the neck of each person receiving the blessing… surely related to Candlemas, too. My mom and dad got married at St. Blaise Church in Brooklyn in 1949. It was my grandparents’ neighborhood parish, a small church. And so we have some fondness for St. Blaise. Ah, but that is tomorrow. Today, though, when we awake, we’ll see what that old groundhog says about winter this year. We shall see what we shall see, and it will be what it will be. The weather is beyond our control. But we can, at sunset, run about the house and light every lamp, for a few minutes at least, and illuminate our world.


Image: Candlemas at Puno, Peru by Pavel Špindler, 2016 [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons.


Approach to Candlemas

January is waning, and with it, so is Yuletide in its full breadth. Most of us have packed away the Christmas things long ago, but there is an old old tradition that keeps the season going until the First of February, which is Candlemas Eve. Here in our house we have subscribed to this tradition this year, mainly because our tree has been so lovely and fresh, still, even in this late hour of midwinter. Perhaps also because Haden the Convivio Shop Cat loves sleeping beneath its boughs, and we enjoy the serenity of watching her sleep there.

Candlemas traditionally marks the end of the Christmas season in the Church, and even in homes, it is on Candlemas Eve that all vestiges of the Yuletide celebration are to be removed, as we shift from one seasonal perspective (winter) to another: the first stirrings of spring.

If you can’t imagine living with plastic snowmen and sparkly ornaments so far into the new year, keep in mind that in earlier times (well into the 20th century), Christmas decorations consisted of things of the natural world: holly and ivy, balsam and mistletoe, rosemary and other greenery. And in times past the decorations went up on Christmas Eve, not earlier. So it was pretty easy to live with these festive things in your home through to the Eve of Candlemas, and they certainly brought as much joy to a home as any of our contemporary decorations do now. While the major festivities of Christmas ended with Epiphany, the spirit of the season remained and lingered and kept folks company for these forty wintry days. But it was considered bad luck to keep these things about the house any longer than Candlemas. Our old reliable 17th century Book of Days poet Robert Herrick describes the significance of the day in his poem “Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve”:

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.

The shift in our celebration of Christmas will probably always perplex me. How we took a celebration that traditionally begins on the solstice and runs through Candlemas and made it into a fourth quarter corporate event that begins in stores in September and makes people weary of its presence by Christmas Day is, I think, a great disservice to us all. In our home we follow the old ways as closely as we can. We may seem out of step with the rest of the world, but the rest of the world is not necessarily where we want to be, anyway. Home is a refuge for us and for sacred ceremony, and we rather like it that way. And so with Candlemas we will say farewell to the tree and to the wreath of bay upon the door. We’ll pack up the ornaments, and the tree will be returned to nature, laid to rest in a quiet corner of the garden. Next winter, at the solstice, we’ll use that same tree, dried over the course of the year, to fuel our solstice fire. And with Candlemas, we’ll shift our view from one of winter to one where the renewal of spring is close at hand.


Image: “Le Jeune Chanteur” by Trophime Bigot, who is known also as the Candlelight Master. Oil on canvas, 1650 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.