Monday, February 2, 2009


Candlemas is not a widely celebrated holiday in the United States. I wrote about it last year, so for those of you who were around then or who already know what Candlemas is about, forgive me the repeated history lesson.

What on earth is Candlemas? It's the festal day when Christians celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple. This was a sacred day of purificiation for firstborn Jewish boys when they would be consecrated to God. Luke recounts the story in his Gospel, Ch.2, v. 21-39. For Catholics, the Presentation in the Temple is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. As you can probably guess from the name, Candlemas is an occassion to break out every candle you have in the house and illuminate your home on a dark mid-winter night. Candles are used for several reasons. One is the use of fire in ancient Jewish purification and sacrificial rituals. Another reason is that Jesus is called the "Light of the World" and candles symbolize His presence with us, as well as the flame of the Holy Spirit. A third reason is because of links to the ancient pagan holiday of Imbolc, which is celebrated around the same time each year and draws heavily on fire in its symbolism. It has long been the tradition of the Church to Christianize cultural traditions rather than abandoning them altogether.

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.

This is also the date that bears and other animals are thought to emerge from winter hibernation. If the hibernating wolves return to their dens, it is thought, in Britain, that the weather will continue to be severe for at least another forty days. In Germany, the animal that was watched for was a groundhog, rather than the wolf. In the United States, this superstition gave way to Groundhog Day--another holiday celebrated on this date.
In France, the day is celebrated by eating crepes for supper--but only after 8 PM. If the cook flips the crepe in the pan while holding a coin in her other, it is believed that the family will have good luck through the coming year. In Mexico, tamales are the customary treat of the day, and whoever gets the coin in the King Cake on Epiphany is required to throw a celebration party. Some Mexicans also remove the Baby Jesus from the Nativity scene on this day, dressing the figure in brightly colored outfits.

This year, we chose to take down our decorations on an earlier traditional day for doing so: Epiphany, due to the fact that we had a lot of live greenery this year that was becoming, well, progressively less alive. So, in any case, that ritual is out. In our family, we will be celebrating by reading the story of Jesus' Presentation in the Gospel of Luke, lighting some candles, and possibly having a go at flipping some crepes! In a beautiful synchronicity, Candlemas falls on a Monday this year, one of the days of the week on which the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary are recited, so I am also looking forward to a special meditation on the Presentation of the Temple today.

* The Bookworm's Library has been updated: Table for Eight: Raising a Large Family in a Small Family-World by Meagan Francis


  1. We're celebrating Candlemas today, too. I'm using the ideas from "All Year Round" as I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing with any of the "festivals" as this is my first year through the Christian feast calendar in its entirety.

    Our Candlemas seasons table has a plain white playsilk as a tablecloth, the "starry night" playsilk hanging on the wall behind the table, and a single white beeswax candle on the center table. From here all the other additions of the Lenten season shall join the table as time marches on.

  2. That was interesting. I was wondering what people did for Candlemas (it's not being celebrated in my church).

    It would be good to see some of the Christian feast days celebrated like they used to be. If nothing else they give us a way to mark the passing of the seasons. I suspect Candlemas/Imbolc was partly about getting past the worst of Winter and seeing the beginnings of Spring.

  3. I never knew what Candlemas was before! Thanks for telling me! My family always took down Christmas on Epiphany because that was the end of the 12 Days of Christmas. Sometimes later if we didn't get to it then, but never before, because the plaster Magi from the creche didn't arrive at the stable until then (we children were very literal), and you couldn't take down the creche until they got there.
    I know people who take down Christmas the day after!

  4. Caeseria - We (or I should say I) still move my magi figurines into the stable on Epiphany :) When I was little, I would put them far away from the manger scene and move them closer each day.


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