Celebration of Candlemas

Snowdrops blooming in time for Candlemas.
Snowdrops blooming in time for Candlemas.

by Heather Elvidge

While our winter celebrations seem long ago, in the far north they are still shaking a fist at the short days. In Shetland this is the time for fire festivals.

Several of these events take place between January and March, of which Lerwick’s Up Helly-Aa is the largest and most famous. They’re probably still recovering from the torchlight parade, longship pyre, and all-night revelling that took place on Tuesday.

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

While retailers hope to tempt us with their spring ranges, folklore advises us to keep our wallets closed: “If birds begin to sing in January, frosts are on the way.”

When poet John Clare made his journal entry for January 31, 1825, a thrush had been singing all day. Crocus and snowdrops were in flower, and everyone was remarking on those unseasonable events. But this farmer’s son would not have been fooled by a false spring.

Sure enough, three days later he wrote: “The first winter’s day. A sharp frost and a night fall of snow, drifted in heaps by a keen wind.”

Is that what’s in store for us? Candlemas on February 2 could provide the answer:

If Candlemas Day be clear and bright,

Winter will have another flight.

But if it be dark with clouds and rain,

Winter is gone and will not come again.

Animals that spend the winter months in hibernation can also give us a Candlemas forecast. Step forward, our spiny friend: “If a hedgehog casts a shadow at noon, winter will return.”

A very mild spell can rouse hedgehogs briefly, which is bad news because they won’t find enough beetles or slugs to replace the energy used in waking. Should you happen to see a Candlemas hedgehog, it could be starving. A meal of meaty cat or dog food will help it to survive the rest of its hibernation.

Light in darkness

Candlemas is a Christian festival dedicated to the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

The English name dates from 1014, and was inspired by the abundance of candles lit to celebrate Christ as the Light of the World.

Before the Reformation, everyone in the congregation brought a candle to be blessed. Then they took their candles home, to be lit again in times of threat or placed into the hands of the dying for comfort.

Although the ceremonies didn’t survive, the day’s association with candles did. People were still giving them as gifts in the 19th century.

Oddly, February 2 was when shoemakers and others stopped working by candlelight. “At Candlemas,” it was said, “throw candle and candlestick away.”

That sounds a bit drastic. But if evergreens are lingering from Christmas, clear them out now, or every dried-up holly leaf will attract a goblin into the house.

To keep those goblins away, why not bring in some Candlemas bells – these delicate-looking flowers are said to purify the house.

Snowdrops earned that name because they were used to decorate the altar at Candlemas.