Whereas 1 February is Imbolc and Brighid’s Day, 2 February is Candlemas Day, the Christian feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Mosaic Law, a woman is unclean for forty days after giving birth to a male child and needs to be purified before she can re-enter society, so after the Church decided to fix Christ’s birthday on 25 December (after celebrating it all around the calendar at various times), this dated the purification of Mary to the beginning of February. It is said that as Mary entered the temple, an old man called Simeon recognized the baby as the promised Messiah and hailed him as a “light to lighten the Gentiles”. The Roman Catholic Church uses Candlemas as the time to bless the candles for the coming ritual year, and embraces the old Pagan symbolism of light redeeming the darkness in spring.
The Celtic Church in Ireland, finding that the worship of the Pagan goddess Brighid was too deeply ingrained to be eradicated, turned her into a saint and gave her the role of nursemaid to the infant Jesus, even though St. Brighid was supposed to have lived in Ireland hundreds of years later in the fifth or sixth century CE. She is alleged to have distracted King Herod’s soldiers when they were pursuing the holy family by dancing with two candles, allowing the family to escape.
Like many Church feasts and customs, Candlemas was a direct takeover of pre-existing Pagan festivals. Pope Innocent asked “Why do we in this feast carry candles?…Because the gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as, at the beginning of it, Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother, Ceres, sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles; because the holy fathers could not utterly extirpate this custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honour of the blessed virgin Mary: and thus what was done before to the honour of Ceres is now done to the honour of the Virgin.”
The purifications of the ancient Greek Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated around the beginning of this month with candlelight processions in honour of the agricultural goddess Demeter and her daughter, the spring goddess Persephone (Ceres and Proserpine respectively in Roman mythology) and marked Persephone’s release from the underworld and her return to the land in spring. In Rome the Feriae Sementivae was held in honour of the agricultural goddess Ceres and Tellus (Mother Earth), with the protection of the goddesses invoked to defend the newly sown seed from bad weather and frost. They were given sacrifices and offerings such as spelt bread, and small decorated clay discs were hung on the trees to ward off evil spirits and negativity. Also in Rome, candles were burned to the goddess Juno Februa, or Juno the Purifier (mother of the god Mars who protected the crops) to scare away evil spirits. The light of the candles echoes the increase of the sun’s light, and is perhaps an act of sympathetic magic, while fire, of course, is the ultimate agent of purification.
Though we now consider Twelfth Night to be the end of the Christmas season, in the past many considered it to be Candlemas; even now in Rome, the manger scenes are left up until Candlemas. In England, the Yule log was often burned up until Candlemas Eve. Like Twelfth Night, it was marked by games, dancing and feasting presided over by the Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason. The coming of Candlemas was inextricably linked to the ending of the winter season of rest and withdrawal. Very little work was done on the land from Halloween till Candlemas and many Candlemas carols talk of the return to work. This was also the day that servants had to hand back the candles they had been given in the autumn to light their quarters, since it was considered that artificial light was no longer required after this point, which gave rise to the saying “Candlemas, candleless”.
© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Year, Llewellyn, 2021