If Candlemas be fair and bright; Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain; Winter will not come again.
—Old English saying
If this sentiment seems familiar to you it is because it is very close to what is said about its secular counterpart, Groundhog Day, also celebrated Feb. 2. The Catholics of long ago had it down pat before our secular times. The Catholic Feast of Candlemas has an ancient and interesting history. This feast commemorates the Blessed Mother’s obedience to the Jewish law of presenting herself for purification 40 days after the birth of a male child. And we also see St. Joseph offering the redemption of the firstborn male according to the law of Moses. Mary and Joseph are in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38) at the same time as the old priest, Simeon, and the prophetess, Anna. Simeon had understood he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. Upon seeing Our Lord in Mary’s arms, Simeon recites the canticle that has become known as the Nunc Dimittis. “Now Thou dismiss Thy servant, O Lord… because my eyes have seen Thy salvation… a light of revelation to the Gentiles…”
A light of revelation to the Gentiles. The Mass for that day speaks of light. It is on this day that candles used in the home are blessed — hence, Candlemas. The blessing of candles represents Christ whose birth illumined a world shrouded in darkness. St. Anselm in the 11th century spoke of the blessed candle, the wax, the wick and the flame this way: The wax is for Our Lord’s flesh; the wick in the flesh is for his soul; and the flame is for his divinity.
The Church’s blessing of the candles includes the bees, the wax and the faithful. “This liquid comes from the labor of bees (symbol of purity) to the perfection of wax, and then goes on to bless the faithful. “That Thou would vouchsafe to bless and sanctify for the use of men, and health of body and soul, whether upon the earth or in the water.” It is interesting to note that the following day, the Feast of St. Blaise, that these candles are used in the blessing of throats.
The first recorded history of this feast comes from a visitor to Spain in 380 to the Holy Land. She records a procession with candles on that day. She stated it had been an ongoing tradition for many years. Pope Sergius (701) prescribed a procession with candles. Interestingly, it was a penitential rite, with the priest in purple robes invoking God’s mercy. The tradition of blessing candles for the home began at the end of that century and continues to this day.
In ancient times tenant farmers paid their rents on Candlemas. Farmhands and maids moved in with their new masters the day after Candlemas.
The Poles have a beautiful legend which states that Mary, the Mother of God of the Blessed Thunder Candle, watches on wintery nights for prowling wolves roaming the villages. With her Thunder Candle, Mary wards off the hungry wolves.
In many areas winter greens left over from Christmas were burned on Candlemas and their ashes spread on field or garden for a healthy spring harvest.
In Scotland children brought candles to light the schoolroom on this day. They also brought money for the teacher to purchase treats for the students. The child bringing the most money was King or Queen for six weeks. The King or Queen decided which afternoon in the week would be free time. Wouldn’t our children love to bring back that tradition! (No word on what happened when it didn’t end before Lent.)
In France, it is customary to make crepes or pancakes, called candleurs, on Candlemas. (If you put in the word candleurs in the French to English dictionary it comes up in English as Candlemas!) The golden crepe or pancake represents the light of Christ. The Canadian Acadians also celebrate Candlemas with pancakes. Throwing a pancake into the air and catching it six times before it lands on the floor signifies a wedding within the year. Filling with coins and catching it, you will prosper in the coming year.
In addition to crepe or pancake making (maybe without the messy air toss), candles could be decorated to bring to Mass to be blessed. Dye the candles or add Christian symbols such as the cross, a fish, a dove, the Chi Rho, the Alpha and the Omega and put on the candles. A good teaching moment. I always look for those with my family. See what other symbols can be thought of.
For a family celebration use the candles blessed at Mass for the dinner table. Have one of the children, or a guest, read the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon (Luke 2:22-40). Teach the Candlemas ditty, If Candlemas be fair and bright…
Serve up the crepes or pancakes with as many syrups and fillings as you like.
During dinner discuss how we can bring the light of Christ into the world. Notice how the days are getting longer. To conclude your festivities hand out song sheets with the words to, ‘The Light of Christ’ and the,’ Hail Holy Queen.’ Say a decade of the Rosary followed with singing the hymns.
Happy Feast of Candlemas!
Sandra McDevitt writes on Catholic culture. She also hosts ‘Stories From the Heart,’ heard on EWTN radio Saturday and Sunday. Listen to any of her more than 1,000 stories on Ave Maria Radio Archives.