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Light and shadows: The forgotten festival of Candlemas

We're almost halfway there!

Halfway, that is, between the dark and the light.  Halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox.  Halfway through winter, and heading towards spring.

There has been a festival around this date since ancient times.  If you're in America (or remember the film) you might know February 2nd as Groundhog Day.  According to legend, if a groundhog (or bear, or badger) emerges from its burrow and can see its shadow in the sunlight, there will be six more weeks of winter weather.  If the day is cloudy, the forthcoming weather will be mild instead.

via Wikimedia Commons

On the Christian calendar, however, the 2nd of February is Candlemas.  It's a rather forgotten festival - we don't get a day off or anything - but I found out a little more about it recently.

Candlemas is forty days after Christmas and, technically, the end of the Christmas season.  The festival commemorates the baby Jesus being taken to the temple by his parents for a ceremony a little like a baptism.  Mary and Joseph, however, had to sacrifice a couple of pigeons - and I'm sure the Church of England is very glad they don't have to do that!

When Jesus was brought into the temple, a man named Simeon was there; righteous and devout, and looking forward to the consolation of Israel.  He came forward, took the month-old baby in his arms, and prayed, "Lord, let your servant now depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

That connection with the light has given Candlemas its name, and its main tradition: blessing the candles that will be used in the church for the year ahead. In my Bible study group this morning we prayed this prayer, taken from thisischurch.com:

A Prayer to Bless Candles.
God our Father, whose Son was revealed to Simeon as the light of the nations, and the glory of Israel, let these candles be to us a sign of his light and presence, that, guided by the Holy Spirit, we may live by the light of faith until we come to the light of glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen. Johann Arndt, 1555-1621

By Richard W.M. Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

But if you don't feel like blessing candles or looking for groundhogs, there are all manner of other traditions associated with Candlemas.  The Mexicans eat tamales, the French eat crepes or boat-shaped biscuits named navettes.  Catholics celebrate the purification of the Virgin Mary after Jesus' birth, which probably explains some vague references to a "Wives' Feast" on this day - a girls-only party.

Navettes by Véronique PAGNIER, via Wikimedia Commons

So, however you want to celebrate this Friday, go for it!  Light a candle, fry a crepe, and don't forget to watch out for small furry animals.

Comments

Unknown said…
Gutted I missed this talk on Tuesday! Will be blessing a candle at home and celebrating with family. Never heard of candlemas - glad to add it to the celebration calendar!

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