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British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions

Candlemas Day

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This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!

Candlemas is the last festival in the Christian year that is dated by reference to Christmas; In the West, the date of Christmas is now fixed at December 25, and Candlemas therefore falls on the following February 2. In Christian belief this festival celebrates the presentation of Christ in the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth (as Jewish custom required), and the purification ceremony of the Virgin Mary at the same time.

It was believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving birth and after the birth of their children, all Jewish mothers went to the Temple for the ceremony called the Purification.

The English name, 'Candlemas, refers to the custom of blessing and distributing candles and carrying them in procession before the mass. The light of the candles is symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, to stick to tradition all the candles should be made of beeswax.

On the Pagan side it occurs in the middle of winter, with the promise of spring to come.

Due to the poor weather at the time of year, it was almost impossible to have a bonfire festival and candles are thought to have been used as a replacement to move the ritual indoors. Some people believe that the Celtic Sabbat of Imbolc, which was celebrated in pre-Christian Europe (and especially the British Isles) was held at about the same time of year. This festival marked the mid-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The term "Imbolc" translates as either "in milk" or "in the belly," and marked the birth and nursing of the spring lambs as a sign of the first stirrings of spring in the middle of winter. It may also have been celebrated with the lighting of candles, as slightly longer days begin to be noticeable at this time of year.

Candlemas Superstitions

Predicting the weather

Candlemas is around the time that bears emerged from winter hibernation to inspect the weather as well as wolves, who if they chose to return to their lairs on this day was interpreted as meaning severe weather would continue for another forty days at least. In the United States and Canada, Candlemas evolved into Groundhog Day celebrated on the same date.

An ancient Scottish rhyme tells us:-

If Candlemas day be dry and fair,
The half o' winter to come and mair.
If Candlemas's day be wet and foul.
The half o' winter gane at Yule.

The Engish version is:-

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Both rhymes mean that if it is nice on Candlemas Day you can expect six more weeks of yucky, winter weather, if it isn't nice on Candlemas Day, the weather should get nicer. A sort of Catch 22 situation.

Life and Death

The eve of Candlemas was the day on which Christmas decorations and greenery were removed from people's homes and churches. The superstitious believed that If all traces of berries, holly and so forth weren't removed there would be a death among the congregation before the year was out. Nowadays any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5th) should be left up until Candlemas Day and then taken down.

A rhyme called "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve" by Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674) goes:-

"Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall."

Another tradition holds that anyone who hears funeral bells tolling on Candlemas will soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative; each toll of the bell represents a day that will pass before the unfortunate news is learned.

Bad Luck

Sailors are often reluctant to set sail on Candlemas Day, believing that any voyage begun then will end in disaster — and let's face it, given the frequency of severe storms in February, this is not entirely without sense.

British Culture