The GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE tells us that JOSEPH and MARY brought the baby JESUS to the temple six weeks after his birth (Luke 2:22-24). Once there they observed the Jewish ceremony by which firstborn sons were presented to God. Furthermore, Mary fulfilled the purification rites, which Jewish law required women to undergo forty days after the birth of a son. Another very significant event occurred while the Holy Family was at the temple. Simeon and Anna, a holy man and a prophetess, recognized the infant as the Messiah. Simeon declared that the child would be “a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The Christian feast of Candlemas commemorates all these events. It is celebrated on February 2, forty days after Christmas. Candlemas gets its name from a number of candle-related customs connected with the feast. By the Middle Ages the blessing of candles, the distribution of blessed candles among parishioners, and candlelit processions had all established themselves as common elements in western European Candlemas services.
The earliest known description of the feast comes from late fourth-century Jerusalem. This early celebration consisted of a solemn procession followed by a sermon and mass. The description named the feast simply “the fortieth day after Epiphany.” Since at that time Jerusalem Christians were celebrating both Epiphany and the Nativity on January 6, the festival fell on the fourteenth of February (see also DECEMBER 25). From Jerusalem the new festival spread throughout the East. The Greeks called it Hypapante Kyriou, or “The Meeting of the Lord,” a name that reflected their emphasis on the meeting between Simeon, Anna, and the infant Jesus. The feast began to appear in the West in the seventh and eighth centuries. Westerners celebrated it on February 2, since by that time Rome had assigned the celebration of the Nativity to December 25. Roman officials called the feast the “Purification of Mary,” reflecting their emphasis on Mary’s fulfillment of Jewish law.
Several centuries passed before western European Candlemas ob-servances consolidated around a distinctive set of traditions. Candles were used in the services as early as the mid-fifth century in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Pope Sergius I (687-701 A.D.) is generally credited with ordering the first candlelit processions to accompany church services in Rome. In what is now FRANCE, the blessing of candles developed during the Carolingian Empire, near the close of the eighth century. By the eleventh century the blessing of candles, the distribution of blessed candles, and candlelit processions had become widespread elements in the western European observance of Candlemas. The feast got its English name, Candlemas, meaning quite literally “candle mass,” from these customs. Since the eigh-teenth century the representatives of various religious communities have offered the pope large, decorated candles on Candlemas.
Contemporary Candlemas services generally emphasize Christ as the Light of the World. In addition, the officiant often blesses and distributes beeswax candles. In some traditions parishioners bring candles from home to be blessed during the service. In past times Candlemas processions filed out into the churchyard and past the graves of the departed. Contemporary Candlemas processions, however, usually remain within the church.
Some researchers suggest that Christians simply adopted Candle-mas and its customs from pagan celebrations held at the same time of year. On February 1 the pagan Celts celebrated Imbolc, a festival associated with the return of the spring goddess Bride (later, St. Bridget). In some areas sacred fires and candles burned through the night in honor of Bride’s return. In ancient Rome people observed purification rites throughout the month of February, which included a procession through the city with lit candles. In addition, they celebrated the return of their spring goddess, Ceres, on February first. Pagans in other Mediterranean cultures also welcomed the return of a spring deity. Many of these observances featured fire rituals and torchlit processions.
While some writers believe that these pagan practices gave rise to the observance of Candlemas and its customs, most contemporary scholars doubt that these pagan rituals exerted strong influence on medieval Christians. The doubters point out that these pagan fire ceremonies had died out by the time candles became part of the Christian festival. They also claim a specifically Christian symbolism for the Candlemas tapers. The candles recall the words of Simeon who proclaimed that Jesus would become “a light” unto the Gentiles.
Jesus’ presentation in the temple and Mary’s fulfillment of the rites of purification mark the end of the series of events associated with Jesus’ birth in the Gospels. In a similar vein, many old European Christmas customs were practiced until Candlemas. For example, in some areas NATIVITY SCENES were taken apart and put away on Candlemas. In other areas Christmas GREENERY — such as ROSEMARY, LAUREL, MISTLETOE, HOLLY, and IVY—and other seasonal deco-rations were finally removed on Candlemas. The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) summarized Devonshire folk customs and beliefs concerning the removal of such decorations in the fol-lowing poem:
Candlemas Eve Carol
Down with rosemary, and so
Down with bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dressed 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 [Urlin, 1992,30].
In another verse Herrick informs us that the YULE LOG was kindled one last time on Candlemas and then stored till the following year. Herrick implies that Candlemas concludes the CHRISTMAS SEASON with the following lines:
End now the White Loafe and the Pye
And let all sports with Christmas dye [Miles, 1990,353].
Herrick’s sentiments echo the lyrics of a fifteenth-century English CHRISTMAS CAROL, which exclaims, “Syng we Yole tyl Candlemas” (Sing we Yule till Candlemas).