Celebration of spiritual light

Tough little Candlemas bells defy the cold winds.
Tough little Candlemas bells defy the cold winds.

Written by Heather Elvidge

As January ends, we look forward to February’s lengthening days. The month can be dry, although it’s more often damp. And that can mean rain or snow: “February fill-dyke, be it black or be it white.”

While shops hope to tempt us with spring clothes, folklore advises caution: “If birds begin to sing in January, frosts are on the way.” So what is the weather planning? Candlemas on February 2 could provide the answer:

If Candlemas Day be bright and clear,

Half the winter’s to come this year.

If Candlemas Day be cloudy and black,

It carries the winter away on its back.

Remember the weather lore rule – signs seen in one area only apply to that area. As we’ve seen recently, the weather can be very different inland to what happens on the coast.

Animals that spend the winter sleeping or hibernating may confirm our Candlemas forecast. Step forward, Mrs Tiggywinkle: “If a hedgehog casts a shadow at noon, winter will return.” In Huntingdonshire the forecaster was Mr Badger. English settlers arriving in North America found neither hedgehog nor badger, only the obliging groundhog.

Another cold snap is quite likely. One of Alexander Buchan’s cold periods falls between February 7 and 14.

Spring festival

The first day of February is an old Celtic quarter day. It was called Oimelc, the Gaelic for ewe’s milk, because the first lambs were being born then. The day was dedicated to Bride, also known as Brighde, the goddess of lambing, calving, and childbirth.

Affection for Bride was so strong that it continued even after the arrival of Christianity. The Life of St Brigid, written in the seventh century, owes much to Irish pagan myth.

Candlemas is the name for a Christian festival that falls on February 2. It marks the occasion when Mary went to the Temple for Purification, forty days after the birth of Jesus.

The festival’s origin lies in fourth-century Byzantium – its English name came from the abundance of candles, lit to celebrate Christ as the Light of the World.

Everyone took a candle to be blessed at the Candlemas service. These consecrated candles were taken home and lit to comfort the sick or dying, or kept as protection against thunderstorms and witchcraft.

The elaborate Candlemas ceremonies and processions didn’t survive the Reformation. Nor did the blessing of candles, condemned as superstition. Yet the association of candles with spiritual comfort lingered in people’s minds, and they were still being given as Candlemas gifts in the nineteenth century.

Today, candles are powerful symbols for believers and non-believers alike. A burning candle left before an altar is an expression of prayer. Similarly, candles placed at the site of a death carry loving thoughts to the one who is gone. At a protest vigil, the candle’s simple light represents the light of truth, while seekers of spiritual illumination focus on a single candle flame to help still the restless mind.

Candles can also express joy at celebration meals, Christmas, and birthdays. However, those little cake candles that betray our age are recent, in folklore terms – they were unknown here at the start of the last century. We can blame the USA for them, and for rebranding Candlemas as Groundhog Day.