In many cultures, including in some Latin
countries today, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season. It
is celebrated on February 2nd, the 40th day
after Christmas, and is technically known as the Purification of
the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the Presentation in the
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., wrote in 1871
that "We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin
with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the
Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which
forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year..."
The basis of the Feast of the Purification
was the Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean
after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the
Temple to worship. This was 40 days after the birth of a son and 60
days after the birth of a daughter. At the end of the 40 or 60 days,
the mother was brought to the Temple or synagogue and ritually
purified. Now she can go to religious services again, and generally
go out in public.
This feast is now celebrated as the
Presentation of the Lord, when the infant Jesus was taken to the
Temple by his parents according to Jewish custom. The Canticle of
Simeon (or the Song of Simeon) is a moving account of one elderly
Jewish man who was present in the Temple on that day.
In many ways, Candlemas can be thought of a
pivotal feast. It is forty days since Christmas and Lent is coming
soon (as early as February 4th?). Likewise, the words of
Simeon at the Presentation reinforce this.
… the prophetic words of Simeon,
which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword
that will pierce, lead on to the passion and to Easter. The
scriptures and the liturgy of the Christmas season have
several pointers to the suffering of the Lord, but none more
potent than the words of Simeon.
At Candlemas, there is also the traditional
observance of blessing candles and distributing the candles to
worshipers. The candles recall the lights of Christmas. The candles
also symbolize Simeon's words to Mary and Joseph in Luke 2:32 that
Jesus would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of
thy people Israel."
According to one source, this was also the
day that by tradition all candles that would be used for the next
year were blessed. Christians were observing Candlemas in Jerusalem
as early as the 4th century A.D. By the middle of the 5th century,
candles were lit on this day to symbolize that Jesus Christ was the
light, the truth and the way. The feast spread slowly and wasn’t
well known even in the 7th century.
Like Christmas, Candlemas also has its
secular side. In some prosperous manors of old England, this
extension of Christmas-tide was marked by music, dancing, games and
feasting: A "Lord
Of Misrule," or "abbot of unreason" was appointed, whose
duty it was to play the part of a buffoon. In addition,
"The larder was filled with capons,
hens, turkeys, geese, ducks, beef, mutton, pork, pies,
puddings, nuts, plums, sugar and honey.... A glowing fire,
made of great logs, the principal of which was termed the
'Yule log,' or Christmas block, which might be burnt till
Candlemas eve, kept out the cold; and the abundance was
shared by the lord's tenants amid music, conjuring, riddles,
hot-cockles, fool-plough, snap-dragon, jokes, laughter,
repartees, forfeits, and dances."
Many poems and carols celebrate Candlemas.
By tradition, Candlemas eve was the date upon which all Christmas
decorations were removed. The mid-17th century English
poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote at least four poems concerning
Candlemas. In his "Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve," [Down
With The Rosemary, And So] he wrote
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.
In his longer "Ceremonies for Candlemas
With The Rosemary and Bays] he wrote:
DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).
The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.
Then youthful box which now hath
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.
When yew is out, then birch comes
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.
Green rushes, then, and sweetest
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his
turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.
This poem was adapted into a carol,
Candlemas Eve Carol, set to a
Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Likewise, Candlemas day
had its own traditions. In "Upon Candlemas Day," Herrick wrote:
END now the white loaf and the pie,
And let all sports with Christmas die.
Finally, in "The Ceremonies for Candlemas
The Christmas Brand] he wrote:
Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn ;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year,
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.
This latter poem celebrates the tradition
that Christmas plants would be burned and the
Yule Log was to be allowed to burn
down completely, but that a portion should be held back to start
next year’s Yule log (and as a good luck charm against "mischief").
The ashes were to be spread over the gardens to ensure a good
harvest. Also, the Yule log for the next year would be chosen then.
And there is this poem from colonial
Williamsburg, first published in the 18th Century:
When New Year's Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.
Candlemas was also believed to be a good day
for weather forecasting (it falls halfway between the winter
solstice and the spring equinox).1
If it were a sunny day, there would be forty more days of cold and
snow. This belief has carried into folklore tradition in England,
Scotland, Mexico, the United States (as Groundhog Day), in Germany
(using a badger instead of a ground hog), and many other places. One
English rhyme says:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.
In Western Europe, this was also the time
for preparing the fields for the first planting.
Likewise, many carols of the period refer to
Candlemas as the conclusion of the Christmas season.
Christemas Hath Made An End, the
singer laments the end of this Christmas-tide and the return to the
Christemas hath made an end,
Which was my dearest friend,
More is the pity!
For with an heavy heart
Must I from thee depart,
To follow plow and cart
All the year after.
Keyte and Parrott, in
The New Oxford Book of Carols,
note that in the 17th century, there was little work to be done in
the fields during winter, and that the Christmas-tide was, by
nature, an extended holiday which could be lengthened to Candlemas
(as in this carol), although rarely beyond Epiphany (January 6th).
Farewell To Christmas begins:
Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day!2
The reference to Hallowtide comes from a
tradition that the monarch would announce on All Hallows (November
1) where he or she would spend Christmas. There's a tradition I
could live with! Celebrate the holidays from November 1 through
February 2! See:
Now Have Good Day, Now Have Good Day!
Of The Purification concludes
Farewell, Christmas fair and free;
Farewell, New Years day with thee;
Farewell the holy Epiphany;3
The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd,
Make we mirth
For Christ’s birth,
And sing we yule till Candlemas.
The last verse of this carol, which is an
enumeration of the feasts of Christmas-tide, is:
On the xl  Day came Mary mild,
Unto the temple with her child,
To show her clean that never was defiled,
And therewith endeth Christmas.4
The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd
The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd - Thomas
But this is not just an old tradition, now
forgotten. In many Latin countries, the tradition of Candlemas —
especially as it relates to the celebration of the Three Kings — is
In Mexico, la Rosca de Reyes, a sweet
circular cake is served with a doll baked inside representing the
baby Jesus (similar to Mardi Gras Kings Cake) and is served with hot
chocolate on Epiphany (known locally as Three Kings Day or El Dia de
los Reyes Magos). The person who finds the baby in their slice is to
host the forthcoming celebration Candelaria or Candlemas on February
2nd (when a feast of tamalitos and hot chocolate is
enjoyed by all). According to an article in the
Oaxaca Times by Gayle Hanson, when
20 or thirty people are on hand sometimes several babies are baked
into the cake, all the better to spread out the cost of the next
party among friends.
The Rosca de Reyes was used by the friars to
evangelize: a small doll, representing the Christ child, is baked
right in the bread — "hidden", to symbolize the hiding of the infant
from King Herod's troops on the day of Los Santos Inocentes, the
Holy Innocents [See:
The Hymns Of The Holy Innocents].
As was the case in old England, it is on
this day that the nativity scene and all the Christmas decorations
are put away.