Festival of the Virgin or
celebration of Candlemas is mentioned just briefly in Le Morte Darthur
by Malory, it is a subject that is itself worthy of closer study. An ancient
festival, its exact origins are lost to history; though it is certainly older
than its Catholic fašade. Possible roots for Candlemas exist throughout Europe,
especially in ancient holidays such as Imbolc and the Feast of Februa. Why
should such an obscure festival interest those living in modern times? It is a
festival that is now celebrated by very few, and to most is no more than an
intriguing historical footnote. Studying the evolution of Candlemas shows us
not only the changing religious face of Britain in particular, but allows us a
glimpse into the seasonally-affected lives of the people who celebrated it.
By the middle ages,
February second was a Catholic festival of purification. The tradition of
churching or purifying a woman forty days after giving birth was common
throughout the middle ages and beyond. Before this time, a woman in the
recovery period was considered unclean because of the sin in which she brings
children into the world. February second was a day to commemorate the
purification of Mary after giving birth to Christ, and therefore occurs forty
days after Christmas. In the north, it is called the Wives Feast Day (Brand,
p. 43), one indication of the important part that women play in this
celebration. The name Candlemas derives from the tradition of carrying
candles in procession to the church. It was traditional for women in England to
bear lights when they were churched (Brand, p. 45), and for other paritioners
to bear lights alongside them in their honour. Bacon writes that Pope Sergius
commanded that all the people should go on procession upon Candlemass Day, and
carry candels about with them brenning in their hands in the year of our Lord,
684 (Brand, p. 44). It became traditional for churches to be lighted with as
many candles as possible on this day. These candles were supposedly endowed
with special powers of protection and healing. In Poland in particular, these
candles were called gromnica. They were distributed to the people who
used them throughout the year as protection from evil (Zajaczkowa, p. 1). The
celebration of Candlemas was also a point of heated debate and contention in
the church. The dispute was over the fact that because Christ was divinely
conceived there was no sin that required cleansing. In essence, Mary did not
technically require a cleansing, so why would the church celebrate it? Doing so
would only deny the miracle of immaculate conception.
concerning this debate is over the idea that Candlemas was not originally a
Catholic celebration at all. Opinion on this possibility has been divided in
the past. Some scholars on popular customs of Britain claim that the idea of
Candlemas being ...a Christian festival engrafted upon a heathen one, in order
to take advantage of the established habits of the people... is doubtful
(Chambers, p. 213). The similarities between Candlemas and more ancient
festivals are compelling. Hazlitt calls Candlemas a graft or aftergrowth,
pointing to the inconsistency with immaculate conception, described above, as
proof. Instead, he argues that The candles at the Purification were an
exchange for the lustrations of the Pagans... (p. 85). One source for the
celebration may have been a Greek festival called uoaoamta (hupapanta), translated as a meeting, ...because
Simeon and Anna the prophetess met in the Temple at the presentation of our
Saviour (Hazlitt, p. 85). An ancient source which sounds more closely related
is a festival celebrated by the Romans: the feast of Februa. On this night, the
Romans carried lit torches and candles through the streets of Rome to the
temples of Februa in honour of her son, Mars. Bacon describes the transition
thus: Then there was a Pope [called] Sergius, and when he saw Christian people
drawn to this false maumetry and untrue belief, he thought to undo this foule
use and custom, and turn it to Gods worship and our Ladys, and gave
commandment that all Christian people should come to church and offer up a
candle brennyng... so that now this feast is solemnly hallowed thorowe all
Christendome (Brand, p. 44). Though clearly flavoured by Catholic
righteousness, this argument does admit that the roots of Candlemas were Pagan.
There are many
fascinating rural traditions associated with Candlemas. It is traditionally the
time to remove every last scrap of Christmas or Yule greenery from inside the
house. To allow such decoration to remain longer would be to invite misfortune
upon the home. The brittle boughs and branches are swept out and burned, with
special attention given to cracks, corners, and rugs so that no trace of it may
inadvertently be left behind. Other traditions have even less to do with
religion. Weather prediction is an important part of the rural Candlemas
tradition, the root of our modern Groundhog Day. There are many rhymes and
proverbs associated with the second of February. An oft-quoted weather rhyme
Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
will have another flight,
Canlemas Day be clouds and rain,
be gone and will not come again. (Baker, p. 22)
or, more whimsically:
Candlemas Day if the thorns hang adrop,
can be sure of a good pea crop. (Baker, p. 22)
As an introduction to
the figure of Briget, perhaps the most interesting of Candlemas traditions
comes out of the Hebridean islands where, The mistress and servants of each
family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in womens apparel, put it in a
large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briids bed; and
then [they] cry three times, Briid is come, Briid is welcome. This they do
just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the
ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briids club there; which is a
portent of a good crop and a prosperous year (Brand, p. 50-51). Briid, later
called Briget, Brigantia, Breed, Brighid, and, to Catholics, St. Bridget, was
an important figure in Pagan Britain. She was goddess of smiths, poets, and the
hearth. To many medieval Christians, however, she was Bridget, 'foster mother'
of Christ, or Mary's midwife. At Kildare in Ireland, both pagan priestesses and
later Christian nuns kept an eternal flame burning in her name (Zajaczkowa, p.
1). The figure of Briget, in both her Pagan and Christian forms, was said to
wander the countryside on Candlemas eve, bringing blessings to both the people
and the animals she met (Davidson, p. 39).
Considering the above
connection with Bridget, the true root of Candlemas in Britain may very well be
the quarter festival of Imbolc, otherwise known as Oimelc, which translates as
sheeps milk. It was a festival in honour of the goddess Briid, in all her
aspects. Ever practical, Britons celebrated the beginning of spring on this day
with preparation for the coming year. Tools of iron were blessed, as Briget is
the patron goddess of smithcrafts. Farmers plowed their fields, if the ice had
relented. Fishermen prepared their boats. Ewes were lactating in preparation
for the coming lambing period. Pagan Celts were highly intuned to the wheel of
the year that was turning to favour the growing things of the earth. It was traditionally
the time to make fresh starts, cleaning out the old and welcoming in the new.
It was also a favourable time to be married, to renew vows, or to begin other
There are few left
today who continue celebrating either Imbolc or Candlemas; but those that do
are following an ancient and complicated tradition. It is a spiritual and
practical holiday with roots that stretch possibly to the furthest corners of Europe.
Baker, Margaret. Folklore and Customs of Rural England.
New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
Brand, John and Sir Henry Ellis. Observations on the
Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the
Origin of Our Vulgar and Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions Vol.
1. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.
Chambers, Robert, Ed. The Book of Days: A Miscellany
of Popular Antiquities Vol. 1. Edinburgh: W&R Chambers, 1863.
Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe.
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988.
Hazlitt, W. Carew. Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary
Vol. 1. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.
Zajaczkowa, Jadwiga. Candlemas. Internet: Jennifer
Heise, 1997. http://www.eisental.eastkingdom.org/classes/candlemas.html