In many cultures, including in some Latin countries today, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season. It is celebrated on February 2nd, the 40th day after Christmas, and is technically known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., wrote in 1871 that “We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year…”
The basis of the Feast of the Purification was the Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the Temple to worship. This was 40 days after the birth of a son and 60 days after the birth of a daughter. At the end of the 40 or 60 days, the mother was brought to the Temple or synagogue and ritually purified. Now she can go to religious services again, and generally go out in public. (See Leviticus 12:2-8).
This feast is also celebrated as the Presentation of the Lord, when the infant Jesus was taken to the Temple by his parents according to Jewish custom. (See Luke 2: 22-39).
In many ways, Candlemas can be thought of a pivotal feast. It is forty days since Christmas and Lent is coming soon. Likewise, the words of Simeon the Just at the Presentation reinforce the pivotal nature of this date. The section on Candlemas at Oremus notes:
… the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will pierce, lead on to the Passion and to Easter. The scriptures and the liturgy of the Christmas season have several pointers to the suffering of the Lord, but none more potent than the words of Simeon.
At Candlemas, there is also the traditional observance of blessing beeswax candles and distributing the candles to clergy and the laity. The candles recall the lights of Christmas, and also symbolize Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph that Jesus would be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
THREE POEMS FOR CANDLEMAS
A Candlemas Dialogue
by Christina Georgina Rossetti (after 1891)
‘Love brought Me down: and cannot love make thee
Carol for joy to Me?
Hear cheerful robin carol from his tree,
Who owes not half to Me
I won for thee.’
‘Yea, Lord, I hear his carol’s wordless voice;
And well may he rejoice
Who hath not heard of death’s discordant noise.
So might I too rejoice
With such a voice.’
‘True, thou hast compassed death: but hast not thou
The tree of life’s own bough?
Am I not Life and Resurrection now?
My Cross, balm-bearing bough
For such as thou.’
‘Ah me, Thy Cross! – but that seems far away;
Thy Cradle-song to-day
I too would raise and worship Thee and pray:
Not empty, Lord, to-day
Send me away.’
‘If thou wilt not go empty, spend thy store;
And I will give thee more,
Yea, make thee ten times richer than before.
Give more and give yet more
Out of thy store.’
‘Because Thou givest me Thyself, I will
Thy blessed word fulfil,
Give with both hands, and hoard by giving still:
Thy pleasure to fulfil,
And work Thy Will.’
Sr. M. Bernetta, O.S.F. Robert, Cyril. Our Lady’s Praise In Poetry.
Poughkeepsie, New York: Marist Press, 1944.
Out went the stupid to wash the snow,
To cleanse the lily of Christ.
Wouldn’t you think that they all should know
The pearl who couldn’t be priced?
Wiser to purify the crystal stone,
To call the tulip unclean,
Than to wash the rose that God’s hand had sown,
Young Mary, the innocent Queen.
Down With The Rosemary and Bays
English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).
The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.
Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.
When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.
Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.