Coming from the Latin words "festa candelarum" or festival of candles, Candlemas replaced the pagan holiday Lupercales honoring the god Pan. A free-for-all of ancient days during which rowdy revelers ran through the streets of Rome at night waving flaming torches, it was a time of berserk bedlam, not conducive to Christian piety, but still a celebration in mid winter that folks looked forward to.
Pope Gelasius I, a pious and practical pontiff (famous, incidentally, for his generosity to pilgrims arriving in Rome by welcoming them with pancakes!) Christianized this pagan holiday, replacing it with feast commemorating the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple, a day whose chief symbol is also light, thus making a pleasing bridge between the old and the new.
Known also in the Church as the Feast of the Purification, today celebrates Our Blessed Mother's obedience to the ancient Jewish law requiring mothers to come to the temple forty days after the birth of a child for a ritual purification and the customary presentation of the infant to the temple leaders. As you might imagine, Mary, perfect in body and soul didn't actually require any purification, but she teaches us humility, obedience, and respect for tradition by submitting to this mosaic law.
This day simultaneously honors the fourth Joyful Mystery, the Presentation of the Infant Jesus at the Temple, and is the day upon which one of the chief blessings of the Church takes place. We have the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday, the blessing of the ashes on Ash Wednesday, the holy water is blessed on Holy Saturday, and the blessing of candles, today, on Candlemas Day (the Feast of the Purification).
It was on this day that Mary and Joseph met both the holy widow, Anna and the prophet, Simeon at the temple. Simeon prophesied the coming sorrows of the Blessed Mother, saying, "Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed."
This quote is familiar to most of us, but, upon first seeing the Infant Savior, Simeon also spoke the following words, which prompted the Church's choice of this day for the blessing of candles:
"Now dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, In peace, according to Thyword: For mine own eyes hath seen Thy salvation, Which Thou hast prepared inthe sight of all the peoples, A light to reveal Thee to the nations And theglory of Thy people Israel."
So, we remember today at the blessing of candles that Christ is the light -- the light of the world -- that Simeon is talking about.
This explains how the Feast of the Purification also became "Candlemas Day!" Today we bring to the church our beeswax candles (at least 51%) to be blessed for home use. Every home should have blessed candles. They can be used at the home altar or for Advent candles, for instance, but are usually reserved for the most special occasions, due to the expense of the beesewax variety. They are generally used in the home for Extreme Unction, at dusk on all Saint's Day (according to this custom) and in the case of severe storms or other trouble or danger. Candles have also traditionally been burned during the sowing season and carried in procession through fields and vineyards.
Incidentally, today also marks the official end of the Christmas season. If you haven't gotten the lights down off your house yet, you have no excuse. If you've long ago taken down all your red and green, but left up your mistletoe, today is the day to bite the bullet and get after it. We have our Nativity down and all the greenery and bows, but I'm having a hard time putting away our little Baby Jesus. He just seems so right there at the foot of our statue of the Blessed Mother... But, yeah, I expect I'll have him safely packed away before too long -- before Lent, anyway...
It's a little sad to have the joyful season of Christmas behind us -- but, on the bright side, those of us who are ready for some green trees and garden work might be happy to know that his date also marks the halfway point of the winter season! Woohoo! In the secular world, today is known as Groundhog Day - actually an adaptation of the Catholic "weather predicting" tradition of the Ember Days (described here), we find the origins of the whole spring prediction thing in several places. An old English proverb held that:
Incidentally, our neighborhood groundhogs saw their shadows
this morning, in crisp bright relief against the snow.
Six more weeks of winter ahead, darnitall!
If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight., If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.
Here's another one from the German tradition:
If Candlemas is mild and pure,
Winter will be long for sure.
When it storms and snows on Candlemas Day,
Spring is not far away;
If it's bright and clear, Spring is not yet near.
Besides keeping an eye on the neighborhood groundhogs just a little bit of internet searching finds a a cornucopia of celebration ideas. I linked several customs for Candlemas and a coloring page for today in another post, including information on the European custom of preparing Crepe Suzettes for today's feasting fun. I don't know if we'll make anything as fancy as Crepe Suzettes today, but I expect some kind of crepes or pancakes are in our future today. Here's a good recipe for Crepes! You can also go here for the Candlemas site from Worldwide Gourmet which has links to several more recipes and a rundown of customs for the feast day from several countries. Here are some more tidbits of cool facts and history on the day:
* In Mexico, the person who got the hidden ring in the traditional Three Kings Cake on the Epiphany is responsible for throwing a party on this day. Tamales and hot chocolate are the traditional fare! (So that means Theresa should be throwing us a party tonight, since she got the coveted ring. Better get busy, Seesa!)
*But in many European countries, crepes are the order of the day, either sweet or savory. Catholic Cuisine has a great crepe recipe for today, as well as some wonderful ideas for cakes shaped like candles to celebrate the feast.
*We've always got to have at least onecoloring page, so here is one with St. Simeon and the Holy Family.
*Also, heads up: tomorrow is theFeast of St. Blaise. Two of the blessed candles from today will be used by priests to bless throats in parishes around the world. We'll personally be sending up great thanks to St. Blaise this year, as he was the saint we most applied to for Dan in his recent health emergency. Post Note: If bits and pieces of this post are familiar to any of my long-time blogging friends, you win the button for being unnaturally observant! I actually pieced together this (probably-too-lengthy post) from about three different old posts on this feast day. Laziness is the mother of ingenuity, I guess...)