Thursday, 2 February 2012

Time to Light a Candle

‘Tis Candlemas today, the time when candles were blessed so they could be used for services in the year ahead. In addition, members of the congregation were each given a candle to take home, which could be lit if they needed protection from the devil during times of crisis, such thunderstorms, childbirth, and serious illness, or when crops were threatened by drought, hail or frost. In the evening people placed lighted candles in their windows, to keep the dark at bay and welcome Christ, the Light of the World.

The custom, apparently, marks the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of Jesus, and his presentation to God in the Temple at Jerusalem, where he was held by Simeon who had been told he would not die until he had seen ‘the Lord’s Christ’, and called the baby a Light to the World. As I understand it, the prayer ‘Nunc Dimittis’, which is said at the end of the day, is supposed to be what Simeon said:
Now dismiss Thy servant, O Lord,
In peace, according to Thy word;
For mine own eyes have seen Thy salvation,
Which Thou hast prepared in the sight of all people,
A light to reveal Thee to the nations,
And the glory of Thy people, Israel.
I don’t know how far back the customs of Candlemas dates, but Henry VIII ordered that ‘the bearynge of Candels’ should be done in ‘memorie of Christe, the spirituall lyghte whom Simeon dyd prophecye’, and maybe his order formalised an earlier practice.

Christ th Light of the World, by
William Holman Hunt
Like many other Christian festivals there are all kinds of traditions and customs associated with the day, some of which may have pagan origins. At the end of January and beinning of February the Celts celebrated Imbolc, a festival of light marking the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was also a time for growth and renewal. Many customs are connected with the weather, since people believed that conditions for the rest of winter depended on conditions on Candlemas Day – I suppose some indication of what lay ahead must have been important if there was ground to be prepared and seeds to be sown for crops. One rhyme said:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight
If Candemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter will not come again.

On the same theme, it was believed that badgers came out to look at the weather, and would only stay above ground if it was snowing – in sunny weather they would return to their setts because, presumably, bad weather was on the way. And another piece of weather law insisted that if ‘ thorns hang adrop’ with icicles you could be certain of a good pea crop

Folklore also recommended that:
A farmer should on Candlemas Day
Have half his corn and half his hay.
This sounds like a sensible precaution if their animals were to survive on stoed food for the rest of the winter.

And there are various legends about snowdrops, which traditionally bloom in February. According to one tale an angel made them flower as a sign of hope to Eve, but they are also seen as a symbol of Jesus being this hope for the world – just as lighted candles placed in windows on the night of Candlemas are said to represent Christ  as the ‘light of the world’.

By the way, Candlemas is regarded as the last day of Christmas, so if you forgot to take down your decorations on Twelfth Night, don’t worry: you have been given a period of grace and may avoid bad luck, as long as you remove them today.  And if you want to celebrate this festival, then cook a special meal and eat it by candlelight... or put a bunch of green leaves in a vase... or plant a seed to grow as spring approaches... or read TS Eliot’s ‘A Song for Simeon’.

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