A wondrous force and might
Doth in these candels lie… — Barnaby Gouge: The Popish Kingdome
In keeping with the policy of the Catholic Church to subsume pagan festivals into Christian feast-days, the Day of Bride became equated with Candlemas on February 2nd, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At this time, forty days after childbirth, Mary was supposed to have gone to the Temple at Jerusalem to make the traditional offering to purify herself. As she entered the temple, an old man named Simeon recognized the baby as the Messiah of Israel, and a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” So, once again we encounter the archetype of the young Sun or Light come to redeem the darkness, but now in Christian clothing. Certainly, the service most used for this day in the medieval church made much of this symbolism, playing upon images of the appearance of divine light in the darkness of human sin, of renewal and rebirth of light in the dark time of the year, and of the new light of heaven come to transform an old world.
In Britain, Candlemas was celebrated with a festival of lights. In the dark and gloomy days of February, the shadowy recesses of medieval churches twinkled brightly as each member of the congregation carried a lighted candle in procession around the church, to be blessed by the priest. Afterwards, the candles were brought home to be used to keep away storms, demons and other evils. This custom lasted in England until it was banned in the Reformation for promoting the veneration of magical objects. Even so, the symbol of the lighted candles had too strong a hold on the popular imagination to be entirely cast aside. Traces of the festival lingered until quite recently in other areas of the British Isles like little lights that refused to be blown out. In Wales, Candlemas was known as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, Mary’s Festival of the Candles, and was celebrated as late as the 19thcentury by setting a lighted candle in the windows or at the table on this night. Special Candlemas carols were sung by singers who processed from house to house. One of these contains the lines:
Hail reign a fair maid with gold upon your chin,
Open up the East Gate and let the New year in;
The carolers had to undergo a contest of riddles before being allowed to enter (an example of ritual at a liminal place.) When they were allowed in, they might see a young girl with a baby boy on her lap, surrounded by candles, to whom they sang once more and pledged in drink. She of course personified Virgin and Child, but in a country where Catholicism never had a strong hold, it is not difficult to discern a pre-Christian custom similar to the Scottish welcoming of Bride behind the Christian trappings.
In the county of Shropshire, the snowdrop, first flower of spring, took the place of candles, being named, “Candlemas bells,” “Purification flowers” or – with a faint remembrance of Brigid, perhaps – “Fair Maid of February.” And an interesting survival was noted in Cornwall, where until recently in the town of St. Ives, a silver ball was passed around from 10.30 till noon on this day throughout the streets and on the beach. It was started off by the mayor at the parish church, and whoever holds the ball at noon receives a small prize. The significance and history of this unusual and isolated custom is not known. Does the silver ball represent the pale orb of the returning sun?
Finally, traces of the festival of the growing light can even be traced to modern America in the Groundhog Day custom on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow on this morning, it means there will be six more weeks of winter. The custom comes directly from Europe, and Scotland in particular, where an old couplet goes:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
there'll be two winters in the year.
A Scottish rhyme about the Feast Day of Bride begins:
This is the day of Bride,
The queen will come from the mound…
In other versions it is a “serpent” that will emerge from a hole, an allusion which Professor Séamus Ó Cáthain has linked to Scandinavian customs regarding the reappearance of the hibernating bear. For this is the time when the animal world begins to stir from its winter sleep in the depths of earth, and life and light is ushered in by Brigid, the Queen.
Happy Imbolc! :D