Candlemas: Presenting the Divine

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: Christian Festival celebrating the presentation of Jesus to the Temple and the purification of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
  • 2020 Date: February 2nd
  • Celebrated by: Christians
  • Linked Holidays: Epiphany, Imbolc, Groundhog Day

Background and Theological Significance

It was traditional, forty days after giving birth, for Jewish parents to bring their newborn baby to the Temple. This served a dual purpose in traditional Jewish communities of both introducing their new child to the community and marking an end of the period that the Mother was considered ‘Unclean’ after giving birth. (The period was sixty days, twenty days longer, if the mother had given birth to a girl.) The theological roots of Candlemas in Christian Theology are based upon the remembrance of Mary and Joseph bringing the newborn Jesus to the Temple and thus ritually ‘purifying’ Mary and presenting Jesus, marking the new family’s return into the community. 

Luke (2:25-38) gives probably the most famous story relating to the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It involves two figures: Simeon and Anna. They are presented as old, wise, prophets. Indeed, the Eastern Orthodox Church recognises them as the last Prophets of the Old Testament, (despite appearing in the New Testament) because they are the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Saviour. According to the text, Simeon had previously been visited by the Holy Spirit and was told that he would see the Prophet before he dies. Hence the perception that he is old, the image we get is a man and woman who have been waiting around at the temple for years. Yet as soon as they set eyes on Jesus they declare to everybody that he is their Messiah and Saviour. Simeon says:

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.

This phrase ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ highlights Jesus’ significance outside the Jewsih community, and mirrors the description of Jesus as ‘the Light of the World’. This theological significance highlights the reason for the placement of the Festival towards the end of winter, this serves both a practical and a theological purpose.

The end of Winter sees many celebrations around the world that place added symbolic significance on ‘fire’ and ‘light’ as it represents the days growing longer and warmth returning to the land. In Christian theology at Candlemas, this concept is expanded to cosmic proportions; as the darkness of the world is not just that of winter, but that of death and sin; and the light that we are celebrating the return of is not just the sun, but God in human form a path away from the suffering of ignorance. Candlemas, for Christians, is the recognition of the wider world that God is with us, and that light shines in the darkness. 

History

The first recorded celebrations of Candlemas date back to the 4th Century, where it recorded across the Roman Empire, encouraged by various Christian Theologians. It is thought that the festival came at this time of year to supercede the various pre-Christian Festivals that celebrated the return of Spring. 

The Roman Festival of Lupercalia, among other festivals across the Empire, focused on the symbolic use of light, representing the growing strength of the Sun. A common feature of post-Winter Solstice celebrations were candlelit or torchlit processions. These processions were kept and adapted as part of Candlemas celebrations, which they have been a key feature of ever since.

Other, more raucous elements of these pre-Christian festivals were, however, dropped after being deemed ‘Un-Christian’. One tradition of Lupercalia saw young men run through the city streets dressed in animal skins and whipping young women with whips made from animals that they had previously sacrificed. Women who were whipped by these groups of men were considered blessed and likely to experience an easy pregnancy and childbirth.

In the Gaelic lands of Ireland and Britain, Candlemas had an easier union with the traditional festival of Imbolc, which continues to be celebrated the day before Candlemas in many parts of rural Ireland and Scotland.

New traditions have arisen over the year in the United States and Canada, Candlemas shares February 2nd with Groundhog Day. The day is set aside to try and judge when the end of winter will come based on the movements of a Groundhog burrow. According to tradition, if the creature sees its own shadow then it will return to its burrow and keep hibernating, meaning six more weeks of winter for the rest of us.

However, since the 4th century one constant has been Christian communities gathering in Churches around the world and celebrating this Feast day with songs, communion, and light.

What Happens?

As with all Christian Feast Days, Festivals, Mass is performed in Churches. Different denominations conduct their services differently. But a common practice during candlemass is to either have the congregation carry candles or at least have a candlelit procession through the church. Alongside the service Candlemas is also celebrated in other ways outside of Church.

Candlemas is seen by many as the absolute latest that Christmas decorations should be kept up. Decorations are thus taken down beforehand and replaced with Candles and flowers.

I some parts of Europe, especially Luxembourg, Children go door to door with candles in their local community, wishing health and happiness; sometimes in exchange for sweets.

Traditional foods are a big part of Candlemas celebrations; pancakes being particularly popular for eating with family on the day. In Mexico and Mexican communities the celebrations are closely tied with the Epiphany celebrations. The King’s Cake that is eaten at Epiphany holds a model of Christ. According to Mexican tradition, the person who finds the ‘Christ Child’ in their food on Epiphany is named its godfather and is then in charge of dressing the Model and bringing it to be presented at the Church on Candlemas.

Many smaller locally based traditions connected to Candlemas exist, too many to describe here. But it is a festival that continues to capture people’s imaginations and remains one of the more important days of the Christian calendar.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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