Detail, Giovanni Bellini, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, (c. 1470), Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice
From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:
From a very early, indeed unknown date in the Christian history, the 2nd of February has been held as the festival of the Purification of the Virgin, and it is still a holiday of the Church of England. From the coincidence of the time with that of the Februation or purification of the people in pagan Rome, some consider this as a Christian festival engrafted upon a heathen one, in order to take advantage of the established habits of the people; but the idea is at least open to a good deal of doubt. The popular name Candlemass is derived from the ceremony which the Church of Rome dictates to be observed on this day; namely, a blessing of candles by the clergy, and a distribution of them amongst the people, by whom they are afterwards carried lighted in solemn procession. The more important observances were of course given up in England at the Reformation; but it was still, about the close of the eighteenth century, customary in some places to light up churches with candles on this day.
At Rome, the Pope every year officiates at this festival in the beautiful chapel of the Quirinal. When he has blessed the candles, he distributes them with his own hand amongst those in the church, each of whom, going singly up to him, kneels to receive it. The cardinals go first; then follow the bishops, canons, priors, abbots, priests, &c., down to the sacristans and meanest officers of the church. According to Lady Morgan, who witnessed the ceremony in 1820:
â€˜When the last of these has gotten his candle, the poor conservatori, the representatives of the Roman senate and people, receive theirs. This ceremony over, the candles are lighted, the Pope is mounted in his chair and carried in procession, with hymns chanting, round the ante-chapel; the throne is stripped of its splendid hangings; the Pope and cardinals take off their gold and crimson dresses, put on their usual robes, and the usual mass of the morning is sung.â€™
Lady Morgan mentions that similar ceremonies take place in all the parish churches of Rome on this day.
It appears that in England, in Catholic times, a meaning was attached to the size of the candles, and the manner in which they burned during the procession; that, moreover, the reserved parts of the candles were deemed to possess a strong supernatural virtue:
‘This done, each man his candle lights,
Where chiefest seemeth he,
Whose taper greatest may be seen; And fortunate to be,
Whose candle burneth clear and bright: A wondrous force and might
Both in these candles lie, which if At any time they light,
They sure believe that neither storm Nor tempest cloth abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard, Nor any devilâ€™s spide,
Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
Nor hurts of frost or hail,â€™ &c.
The festival, at whatever date it took its rise, has been designed to commemorate the churching or purification of Mary; and the candle-bearing is understood to refer to what Simeon said when he took the infant Jesus in his arms, and declared that he was a light to lighten the Gentiles. Thus literally to adopt and build upon metaphorical expressions, was a characteristic procedure of the middle ages. Apparently, in consequence of the celebration of Maryâ€™s purification by candle-bearing, it became customary for women to carry candles with them, when, after recovery from child-birth, they went to be, as it was called, churched. A remarkable allusion to this custom occurs in English history. William the Conqueror, become, in his elder days, fat and unwieldy, was confined a considerable time by a sickness. â€˜Methinks,â€™ said his enemy the King of France, â€˜the King of England lies long in childbed.â€™ This being reported to William, he said, â€˜When I am churched, there shall be a thousand lights in France !â€™ And he was as good as his word; for, as soon as he recovered, he made an inroad into the French territory, which he wasted wherever he went with fire and sword.
At the Reformation, the ceremonials of Candlemass day were not reduced all at once. Henry VIII proclaimed in 1539:
â€˜On Candlemass day it shall be declared, that the bearing of candles is clone in memory of Christ, the spiritual light, whom Simeon did prophesy, as it is read in. the church that day.â€™
It is curious to find it noticed as a custom down to the time of Charles II, that when lights were brought in at nightfall, people would sayâ€”â€™ God send us the light of heaven!â€™ The amiable Herbert, who notices the custom, defends it as not superstitious. Some-what before this time, we find. Herrick alluding to the customs of Candlemass eve: it appears that the plants put up in houses at Christmas were now removed.
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly now upraise The greener box for show.
The holly hitherto did sway,
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter day Or Easterâ€™s eve appear.
The youthful box, which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place Unto the crisped yew.
When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kinâ€™, To honour Whitsuntide.
Greeu rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments, To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing in turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.â€™
The same poet elsewhere recommends very particular care in the thorough removal of the Christmas garnishings on this eve:
â€˜That so the superstitious find
No one least branch left there behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.â€™
He also alludes to the reservation of part of the candles or torches, as calculated to have the effect of protecting from mischief:
â€˜Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn,
Which quenched, then lay it up again, Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept, wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year;
And where â€˜tis safely kept, the fiend Can do no mischief there.â€™
Considering the importance attached to Candlemass day for so many ages, it is scarcely surprising that there is a universal superstition throughout Christendom, that good weather on this day indicates a long continuance of winter and a bad crop, and that its being foul is, on the contrary, a good omen. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Vulgar Errors, quotes a Latin distich expressive of this idea:
â€˜Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
Major erit glacies post festum quam fait ante;
which maybe considered as well translated in the popular Scottish rhyme:
If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half oâ€™ winterâ€™s to come and mair;
If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
The half oâ€™ winterâ€™s gave at Yule.â€™
In Germany there are two proverbial expressions on this subject: 1. The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemass day than the sun; 2. The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemass day, and when he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole. It is not improbable that these notions, like the festival of Candlemass itself, are derived from pagan times, and have existed since the very infancy of our race. So at least we may conjecture, from a curious passage in Martinâ€™s Description of the Western Islands. On Candlemass day, according to this author, the Hebrideans observe the following curious custom:
The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in womenâ€™s apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call BrÃdâ€™s Bed.; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, â€œBrÃd is come; BrÃd is welcome!â€ This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Bradâ€™s club there; which, if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.
It is easy to see how the American Groundhog Day is a adaptation of the earlier traditions.