February 2nd is most generally known as Candlemas, a day that has both sacred and secular meanings. In the secular world in Britain it marked a turning point in the agricultural year, and was a quarter day in Scotland and northern England when rents were due and spring farm hiring began. In the church it can be celebrated either as Candlemas, when the candles to be used in the church for the coming year are blessed, or as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple/the Purification of Mary celebrating an episode in the infancy of Jesus.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches, it is one of the twelve Great Feasts, and is sometimes called Hypapante (lit., ‘Meeting’ in Greek). In the Roman Catholic Church the “Feast of the Presentation of the Lord” is a major feast day, between the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle on 25 January and the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle on 22 February. In some Western liturgical churches, Vespers (or Compline) on the Feast of the Presentation marks the end of the Epiphany season. In the Church of England, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a Principal Feast celebrated either on 2 February or on the Sunday between 28 January and 3 February.
In the Latin Church of the Roman Catholic Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. It was also reflected in the practice of the churching of new mothers, forty days after the birth of a child.
The event is described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:22–40). According to the gospel, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days (inclusive) after his birth to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the redemption of the firstborn with an animal sacrifice, in obedience to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15, etc.). Luke explicitly says that Joseph and Mary took the option provided for poor people (those who could not afford a lamb) (Leviticus 12:8), sacrificing “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Leviticus 12:1-4 indicates that this event should take place forty days (inclusive) after birth for a male child, hence the Presentation is celebrated forty days after Christmas.
Upon bringing Jesus into the temple, they encountered Simeon. The Gospel records that Simeon had been promised that “he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). Simeon prayed the prayer that would become known as the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon, which prophesied the redemption of the world by Jesus:
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).
There are numerous settings of the Nunc Dimittis. Here’s Holst. (There is quite a bit of Candlemas music which I am embedding just in case you are interested. No need to view if not!)
Simeon then prophesied to Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35).
The elderly prophetess Anna was also in the Temple, and offered prayers and praise to God for Jesus, and spoke to everyone there about Jesus and his role in the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:36-38).
The event forms a common component of artistic representations of the Life of Christ and also of the Life of the Virgin from the late Middle Ages on. Early images concentrated on the moment of meeting with Simeon, typically shown at the entrance to the Temple, and this is continued in Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox icons to the present day. In the West, beginning in the 8th or 9th century, a different depiction at an altar emerged, where Simeon eventually by the Late Middle Ages came to be shown wearing the elaborate vestments attributed to a Jewish high priest, and conducting a liturgical ceremony surrounded by the family and Anna. In the West Simeon is more often already holding the infant, or the moment of handover is shown; in Eastern images the Virgin is more likely still to hold Jesus.
Many motets and anthems have been composed to celebrate this feast and are performed as part of the liturgy, among them an anthem by 16th century German composer Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), Maria wallt zum Heiligtum, often translated in English as “When Mary to the Temple went”.
The Lutheran church of the Baroque observed the feast as “Mariae Reinigung” (Purification of Mary). Johann Sebastian Bach composed several cantatas to be performed in the church service of the day, related to Simeon’s canticle Nunc dimittis as part of the prescribed readings:
Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde, BWV 83, (1724)
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, BWV 125, (1725)
Ich habe genug, BWV 82, (1727)
Candlemas is the last feast day in the Christian year dated by reference to Christmas. Subsequent feasts are calculated with reference to Easter. Traditionally the Western term “Candlemas” (or Candle Mass) referred to the practice whereby a priest on 2 February blessed beeswax candles for use throughout the year, some of which were distributed to the faithful for use in the home. In Poland the feast is called Matki Boskiej Gromnicznej (Feast of Our Lady of Thunder candles). This name refers to the candles that are blessed on this day, called gromnice, since these candles are lit during (thunder) storms and placed in windows to ward off storms.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, since the liturgical revisions of the Second Vatican Council, this feast has been referred to as the Feast of Presentation of the Lord, with references to candles and the purification of Mary de-emphasized in favor of the Prophecy of Simeon the Righteous. This feast never falls in Lent (the earliest Ash Wednesday can fall is 4 February, for the case of Easter on 22 March in a non-leap year). According to over eight centuries of tradition, the swaddling clothes that baby Jesus wore during the presentation at the Temple are kept in Dubrovnik Cathedral, Croatia.
In the Byzantine tradition (Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic), the Meeting of the Lord is unique among the Great Feasts in that it combines elements of both a Great Feast of the Lord and a Great Feast of the Theotokos (Mother of God). It has a forefeast of one day, and an afterfeast of seven days. The holy day is celebrated with an all-night vigil on the eve of the feast, and a celebration of the Divine Liturgy the next morning, at which beeswax candles are blessed. This blessing traditionally takes place after the Little Hours and before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy (though in some places it is done after). The priest reads four prayers, and then a fifth one during which all present bow their heads before God. He then censes the candles and blesses them with holy water. The candles are then distributed to the people and the Liturgy begins.
It is because of the biblical events recounted in the second chapter of Luke that the Churching of Women came to be practiced in both Eastern and Western Christianity. This was a blessing of women after childbirth akin to the Jewish purification. Though the usage has mostly died out in the West, except among traditionalist Catholics, the ritual is still practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The date of Candlemas is established by the date set for the Nativity of Jesus; it comes forty days afterwards. Under Mosaic law as found in the Torah, a mother who had given birth to a male child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover she was to remain for three and thirty days “in the blood of her purification.” Candlemas therefore corresponds to the day on which Mary, according to Jewish law, should have attended a ceremony of ritual purification (Leviticus 12:2-8). The Gospel of Luke 2:22–39 relates that Mary was purified according to the religious law, followed by Jesus’ presentation in the Jerusalem temple, and this explains the formal names given to the festival, as well as its falling 40 days after the Nativity.
The Feast of the Presentation is among the most ancient feasts of the Church. There are sermons on the feast by 4th century bishops and theologians. The earliest reference to specific liturgical rites surrounding the feast are by the intrepid nun Egeria, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land (381–384). She reported that 14 February was a day solemnly kept in Jerusalem with a procession to Constantine I’s Basilica of the Resurrection, with a homily preached on Luke 2:22 (which makes the occasion perfectly clear), and a Divine Liturgy. This so-called Itinerarium Peregrinatio (“Pilgrimage Itinerary”) of Egeria does not, however, offer a specific name for the Feast. The date of 14 February indicates that in Jerusalem at that time, Christ’s birth was celebrated on 6 January. Egeria writes for her beloved fellow nuns at home:
XXVI. The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.
Originally, the feast was a minor celebration. But in 541 a terrible plague broke out in Constantinople, killing thousands. The Emperor Justinian I, in consultation with the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered a period of fasting and prayer throughout the entire Empire. And, on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, arranged great processions throughout the towns and villages and a solemn prayer service to ask for deliverance from evils, and the plague ceased. In thanksgiving, in 542 the feast was elevated to a more solemn celebration and established throughout the Eastern Empire by the emperor.
Candlemas initially was not an important feast in the Middle Ages in Europe; in fact it spread slowly in the West. It is not found in the Lectionary of Silos (650) nor in the Calendar (731–741) of Sainte-Geneviève of Paris. The tenth-century Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, has a formula used for blessing the candles. Candlemas did become important enough to find its way into the secular calendar, though. It was the traditional day to remove the cattle from the hay meadows, and from the field that was to be ploughed and sown that spring. References to it are common in later medieval and early Modern literature; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is recorded as having its first performance on Candlemas Day 1602. It remains one of the Scottish quarter days, at which debts are paid and farm workers hired.
In Armenia, celebrations at the Presentation may have been influenced by pre-Christian customs, such as the spreading of ashes by farmers in their fields each year to ensure a better harvest, keeping ashes on the roof of a house to keep evil spirits away, and the belief that newlywed women needed to jump over fire to purify themselves before getting pregnant. Young men will also leap over a bonfire. But there is no general evidence that Candlemas was a Christianized version of a pagan festival.
As the poem by Robert Herrick records, the eve of Candlemas was the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were traditionally removed from people’s homes because traces of berries, holly and so forth were believed to bring death among the congregation before another year was out. Herrick’s full poem takes you through the decorations of the whole year, so you do not lament the loss of Christmas holly and mistletoe. The old gives way to the new.
“Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall”
—Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”
Herrick’s poem was set to music for west gallery choirs in England, but I cannot find a decent performance. This version is wretched but gives an idea.
Another tradition holds that anyone who hears funeral bells tolling on Candlemas will soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative; each toll of the bell represents a day that will pass before the unfortunate news is learned. In Scotland, until a change in the law in 1991, and in much of northern England until the 18th century, Candlemas was one of the traditional quarter days when quarterly rents were due for payment, as well as the day or term for various other business transactions, including the hiring of servants.
In the United Kingdom, good weather at Candlemas is taken to indicate severe winter weather later:
If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
Winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.”
February 2nd is also alleged to be the date that northern European bears emerge from hibernation to inspect the weather – as well as badgers – who if they choose to return to their lairs on this day is interpreted as a sign that severe weather will continue for another forty days at least. The same is true in Italy, where it is called Candelora.
In the United States, Candlemas coincides with Groundhog Day, the earliest American reference to which can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College:
Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.
—4 February 1841 — from Morgantown, Berks County (Pennsylvania) storekeeper James Morris’ diary.
This custom is undoubtedly a New World evolution of German customs watching to see if hibernating bears and badgers come out of hibernation or not.
In France, Candlemas (French: La Chandeleur) is celebrated with crêpes, which must be eaten only after eight p.m. If the cook can flip a crêpe while holding a coin in the other hand, the family is assured of prosperity throughout the coming year. The French though have a completely reversed view of the weather prospects. They say: “Quand la Chandeleur est claire, l’hiver est par derriere; Chandeleur couverte quarante jours de perte,” a rhyme that means, more or less: “If Candlemas is clear, no more winter to fear; if the Chandeleur is overcast, forty days winter to last.” But then again they also say: “Soleil de la Chandeleur, annonce hiver et malheur” which is “A sunny Candlemas will bring winter and misfortune”. Other traditions include “Si point ne veut de blé charbonneux mange des crêpes à la Chandeleur” which is “if you do not at all wish the wheat to blacken eat crêpes at Candlemas,” and “Celui qui la rapporte chez lui allumée. Pour sûr ne mourra pas dans l’année” which is “whoever arrives home (from church) with it (the candle) lit for sure will not die that year.”
The Virgin of Candelaria is the patron saint of the Canary Islands. The Virgin of Candelaria or Our Lady of Candelaria (Virgen de Candelaria, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria), popularly called La Morenita, appeared on the island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. According to a legend recorded by Alonso de Espinosa in 1594, a statue of the Virgin Mary, bearing a child in one hand and a green candle in the other (hence “Candelaria”), was discovered on the beach of Chimisay (Güímar) by two Guanche goatherds in 1392. This occurred before the Castilian conquest of the island. At first, indigenous islanders identified the statue with their goddess Chaxiraxi (the mother of the gods), but later the Christian conquerors saw the image as the Virgin Mary. The first mass was celebrated at Achbinico on February 2, 1497. The center of worship is located in the city of Candelaria in Tenerife. She is depicted as a Black Madonna. Its main temple and Royal Basilica Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Candelaria (Basilica of Candelaria), which is the main church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Canary Islands
In Southern and Central Mexico, and Guatemala City, Candlemas (Día de La Candelaria) is celebrated with tamales. Tradition indicates that on 5 January, the night before Three Kings Day (the Epiphany), whoever gets one or more of the few plastic or metal dolls (originally coins) buried within the Rosca de Reyes (King Cake) must pay for the tamales and throw a party on Candlemas. In certain regions of Mexico, this is the day in which the baby Jesus of each household is taken up from the nativity scene and dressed up in various colorful, whimsical outfits.
Snowdrops (Galanthas nivalis) are sometimes known as Candlemas Bells because they often bloom early in the year, even before Candlemas. Some varieties bloom all winter (in the northern hemisphere). The superstitious used to believe that these flowers should not be brought into the house prior to Candlemas. However, it is also believed in more recent times that these flowers purify a home.
I’ll save a recipe for French crêpes for another time although I am going to make them for myself today (with mashed pear and cardamom filling). Instead here is a classic recipe for Mexican tamales. Masa harina is the dried and powdered form of masa de maiz (corn dough), made from yellow hominy, used to make corn tortillas. Choose the chiles with the level of heat you desire.
1¼ lbs pork loin
1 large onion, halved
1 clove garlic
4 dried hot chile pods
2 cups water
1½ tsps salt
2 cups masa harina
1¼ cups beef broth (approximately)
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
? cup lard
1 (8 oz) package dried corn husks
1 cup sour cream
Place the pork in a Dutch oven with the onion and garlic, and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the meat is cooked through, about 2 hours.
Remove stems and seeds from the chile pods. Place chiles in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, then remove from the heat to cool. Transfer the chiles and water to a blender and blend until smooth. Strain the mixture, stir in salt, and set aside. Shred the cooked meat and mix in one cup of the chile sauce.
Soak the corn husks in a bowl of warm water.
In a large bowl, beat the lard with a tablespoon of the pork broth until fluffy. Combine the masa harina, baking powder and salt; stir into the lard mixture, adding broth as necessary to form a spongy dough.
Spread the dough out over the corn husks to between ¼ to ½ inch thickness. Place one tablespoon of the meat filling into the center.
Fold the sides of the husks in toward the center and tie the package up. Place in a steamer vertically as pictured.
Steam for 1 hour.
Remove tamales from the husks and drizzle remaining chile sauce over. Top with sour cream. For a creamy sauce, mix the sour cream into the chile sauce.