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The History of Candlemas Day

Shalu Bhatti
Candlemas Day is an important, yet not that well-known day among the Christians today. It is a Feast celebrated (mostly) on February 2, and is often confused with various pagan celebrations such as Groundhog Day, Imbolc, and the like. Read on to know some interesting facts about this auspicious day, to the forefront.

Did You Know?

Candlemas Day―also known as the day of the 'Meeting of the Lord', or, the 'Presentation of Jesus at the Temple'―is considered an auspicious day for letting go of the old and replacing it with the new. Many people remove their Christmas decorations on this day. In fact, Pope John Paul II connected this day with the renewal of religious vows.
Candlemas Day has often been confused with Groundhog Day as both are celebrated on February 2. Well, if you take a note, this date comes exactly forty days after Christmas, which according to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12) was the day of 'churching' women after childbirth.
Churching is a practice where women are blessed and purified after becoming mothers; although, in today's time, this ritual has been largely discontinued but may be seen in some traditional Catholics, and in some of the Eastern Churches. Hence, this day is also known as the 'Feast of the Purification of the Virgin'.
The date of Candlemas depends upon the date on which Christ's birth is celebrated. In certain Christian denominations, such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, Christmas is celebrated on January 6, and therefore, Candlemas is celebrated on February 14, forty days after January 6. They call this day as feast of 'The Coming of the Son of God into the Temple'.
Yes, this one feast has many names that vary from one denomination to the other. Before we go through the history of this celebration, let us first understand more about the significance of Candlemas, in a brief manner.

What Does the Presentation of Jesus in The Temple Mean?

This day holds great importance as it together celebrates many important occasions in Christianity: The presentation of the child Jesus at the temple; Jesus' first entry into the temple; the fulfillment of the promise given to Simeon by God that he will not die until he sees Christ; and the Virgin Mary's ritual purification.
The entire story where these events took place is recorded in the Gospel of Saint Luke. The following excerpt has been taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
❝ And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.'
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.
And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

'Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation..
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.'
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.'❞
― Luke 2:22-35
As seen in the aforementioned record, Simeon called Jesus the "light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel." Hence, candles are lit during the mass, representing Christ's light in the darkness, giving this day its name―Candlemas! Candles are blessed, and distributed among believers so that they can be used throughout the year.
These candles are believed to have powers of healing and protection. In fact, in Poland, this feast is known as Święto Matki Bożej Gromnicznej (Feast of Our Lady of Thunder candles). Here, special candles called 'gromnice' are lit and placed on windows to ward off thunder storms.

A Brief Overview on the History of Candlemas

✦ The earliest records in relation to performing the ritual rites on Candlemas Day has been recorded in the letters of a nun named Egeria who visited the Holy Land during the late-4th century (381-384).
Although she gave no name to the day, she did write that the fortieth day after Epiphany (January 6)―which comes to February 14―is treated as the day of celebration of the highest honor. This emphasizes on the fact that the early Christians celebrated Christmas on Epiphany. She writes the following about the celebration.
❝The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter.
All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spoke when they saw the Lord, and of that offering his parents made.
And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.❞
✦ Another historical incident that made the celebration of this day all the more prominent, took place in the year 541 in Constantinople. Before that, the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord was of minor importance.
However, a terrible plague killed thousands in the year 541, and so after consulting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Emperor of the city, Justinian I, ordered the entire Empire to fast and pray. He also arranged great processions on the day of the Feast, so as to seek deliverance from the plague.
The prayers were heard and as thanksgiving, from the year 542, this Feast began to be celebrated in an elevated manner.
✦ There have also been speculations that Candlemas Day was created by the Catholic Church to curb Roman Paganism, as the pagans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia on this month. It was customary for them to walk in the city with lit candles in honor of goddess Ceres, associated with agriculture and fertility.
Therefore, to stop Christians from being a part of this pagan ritual, Pope Gelasius I ordained Candlemas celebrations so that the candles lit would honor the Blessed Virgin instead of the pagan goddess.
Although the Catholic Encyclopædia denies these speculations, Pope Innocent XII agreed to them, stating the following in one of his sermons:
❝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 the month, walked about the city with lighted candles.
"Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.❞
✦ Clearly, this feast is amongst the most ancient and symbolic celebrations in Christianity, with its mentions dating back to the 4th century. The early bishops including Methodius of Patara († 312), Cyril of Jerusalem († 360), and Gregory the Theologian († 389) are amongst the early preparers of the sermons based on this day.

In Conclusion ...

Because Candlemas Day and Groundhog Day falls on the same day, it is also associated with weather predictions. There are various sayings and poems written in reference to the same, one of them being, ❝If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, / winter will have another bite. / If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, / winter is gone and will not come again.❞
Not only this, there are many beliefs (or superstitions) associated with this day. For example, in France, it is customary to prepare crêpes on this day. It is believed that if crêpes are cooked and flipped while holding a coin in the other hand, it brings prosperity and happiness the entire year.
While, some cultures believe that if all the Christmas decorations are not removed by this day, then the house will attract severe misfortune. While this celebration may be associated with various historical origins and beliefs, it is celebrated with absolute zest and enthusiasms across the globe. Yes, different cultures do celebrate it differently.
While France makes crêpes, Mexico prepares tamales―but all is done in the honor of the Lord and our Blessed Mother. Let the candles light up not only our homes but also our hearts, and may we celebrate this Lord-given life with the purity and warmth imparted by the blessed candles of Candlemas. Amen.