Candlemas, a celebration that dates back to the dawn of time and lives on in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in our folklore
When you eat pancakes at Candlemas, all the candles in the house should be lit, which is easy to understand when considering the etymology of the word: in vulgar Latin festa candelarum "feast of the candles". Already long before the Roman period, this celebration was devoted to a cult of light; at least since Neolithic times as testified to by an archaeological find in Ireland. At the Tara archaeological site, about 40 km north of Dublin, it is possible to find the "Mound of the Hostages", dating from 2500 BC, which is aligned with the rising son on 1 February and 2 November. Later, these dates corresponded to two of the four major celebrations in the Celtic calendar: Imbolc (1 February) and Samhain (1 November), exported by Irish immigrants to the United States in the middle of the 19th century, it was brought back to Europe several decades later under the name Halloween.
Catholics celebrate Candlemas on 2 February, namely 40 days after the birth of Christ at Christmas on 25 December. Candlemas is also called In purificatione Beatae Mariae Virginis or the "Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary". The celebration recalls that Mary, as any Jewish woman who had just given birth, was impure and therefore had to be purified.
It was also the day on which Mary had to present Jesus at the temple. This ceremony took place 40 days after the birth of a boy and 80 days if it was a girl. Up until then, the mother was not allowed any contact with a sacred object, nor, of course, a visit to the temple.
In order to purify herself, she had to make an expiatory sacrifice and an offering to buy back her first son that God had given her. Another version refers to two doves or a lamb. The prophet Simeon witnessed this ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. He had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's anointed.
Luke the evangelist tells how, when Simeon took part in the presentation of Jesus at the temple, he 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."
Candles to ward off evil spirits
In memory of the event, candles are blessed before the start of mass. These lit candles are a symbol of Christ. This also explains the name Candlemas. Believers used to walk around the church in a procession with a lit candle in their hands. The Flemish author Stijn Streuvels (1871-1969) wrote very aptly in his novel "De Maanden" (The Months, 1941):
"…Candlemas! Candles that must drive back the darkness of winter are lit. Candlemas brings to mind clarity and light. The six dark weeks are past; winter is fading. Candlemas: a prelude of the coming spring to which humans aspire and hope will be a liberation, a new beginning..."
In former times, every house had its blessed candle. It was lit in the bedroom of the dying in order to ward off demons, the spirits of darkness. At the moment of passing, it was placed in the hand of the deceased to indicate that, to the very end, he had kept his faith and the desire to benefit from eternal light. It was commonly believed that the blessed candle would protect the house from lightning. A superstition concerning the beneficial virtues of this object suggested that a piece of blessed candle placed beneath the threshold of the house would ward off witches.
Churching, a ceremony held at the church when a woman was seen for the first time after giving birth in order to be blessed by a priest, comes from the presentation of Jesus at the temple. In the same way as the Holy Virgin, they are offering their child up to God. It was common to see women kneeling down at the church doors holding their newborn in their arms with a lit candle in their free hand, and a priest helping them to rise, sprinkling them with holy water and praying for them. Next, she was led her the church, where she knelt before the altar and the priest prayed for her again while sprinkling her once more with sacred water.
Candlemas also announces the coming of spring. Daylight has already increased by one hour. According to a saying: "Candlemas sun announces spring, flowers and joy". This day is also important for bee-keepers because it is believed that a clear and limpid sky on Candlemas foretells a beneficial year for bees.
In our countries, it has always been a tradition to make pancakes at Candlemas. One saying goes: "If you want to avoid infected wheat, pancakes at Candlemas do eat". This custom dates back to the day when new maids and manservants were hired. To celebrate this and alleviate their sadness about being separated from their family, the mistress of the house took up her frying pan and treated her new staff and the rest of the house to pancakes; a great celebration at the time. This feast was also the opportunity to eat the surplus wheat from early sowing.
There were some strange practices in France. The first pancake was thrown against a cupboard where it remained for the entire year. If it did not turn mouldy it meant that the house would be guaranteed wealth. Also, holding the frying pan in one hand and a gold sovereign in the other. The true art involves tossing the pancake up in the air and catching it in the frying pan in order to be ensured wealth and abundance. The round shape and its yellowish colour are also an allusion to the coming spring.