Saturday, February 2, 2008

Candlemas

Today marks the celebration of Candlemas, the festal day when Christians celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple. In keeping with Jewish tradition, Mary traveled to Jerusalem and, with Joseph by her side, consecrated her firstborn son to God. (St. Luke recounts the story in his Gospel.)


Candlemas, as you can probably guess from the name, is traditionally celebrated with candles. Following on the heels of Christmas, smack-dab in the dreariest part of new year, it's the perfect occasion to break out every candle you have and illuminate your home on a dark mid-winter night. Lest anyone think this feast merely a throw-over from the pagan days of yore, I can assure you there are many biblical reasons why candles are connected with this day. 

Fire (lamps and braziers, traditionally) were integral in ancient Jewish purification and sacrificial rituals. Skip ahead to the New Testament, and we find even more evidence. Jesus is called the "Light of the World." Throughout Church history, candles symbolize His presence with us. And, yes, you got me: the ancient pagan holiday of Imbolc, which draws heavily on fire in its symbolism, was celebrated at the same time of year. New Christians who had grown up celebrating Imbolc didn't want to give up the powerful, atmospheric symbolism of these lives flames in the dreary dark, and the young Church co-opted the candles to Christianize them.

In Britain, it is customary to remove one's Christmas decorations on Candlemas, which marks the 40th day following Christmas. A poem by Robert Herrick illustrates a superstition that if the decorations are removed after Candlemas, it will mean bad luck for the family.

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 France, the day is marked by eating crepes for supper--but only after 8 PM. (I have no idea why!) If the cook flips the crepe in the pan while holding a coin in her other, it means good luck for the coming year.

In Mexico, tamales are the customary treat of the day--and whoever was lucky enough to snag the coin from the King Cake on Epiphany is required to throw the celebration party! Some Mexicans also remove the Baby Jesus from the Nativity scene on this day, dressing the figure in brightly colored outfits.

In our home, we will be celebrating this evening by reading the Luke passage by candlelight and then feasting on some tasty ham-and-cheese crepes. Unfortunately, I doubt if I'll be able to flip the crepe in the pan while holding a coin in my other hand! I guess we'll just have to trust God if we can't trust to luck. 

In the future, we plan to remove our decorations on this day, as well, but as we were out-of-state for Christmas visiting family, we never put decorations up in the first place!

How will your family be celebrating?

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