We’re halfway through winter. Feb. 2 marks the midway point between the first days of winter and spring.
This midpoint of winter has been noted by many customs. For some, the date has been noted by the end of hibernation for bears (France), hedgehogs (Germany), and groundhogs (the United States).
In Britain, the date is tied to the blooming of a spring flower called the snowdrop. Scotland holds an annual Snowdrop Festival (starts this year on Jan. 31). At England’s Walsingham’s Abbey, 20 acres of snowdrops fill the gardens that open for public walks during February and into March.
The snowdrop is one of the earliest blooming flowers that herald the approach of the planting season. The nearness of planting is why, in France, Feb. 2 is the day when everyone makes pancakes, using up old flour. A similar custom exists in Mexico on the same day, but there, people eat tamales. It is said that the pancakes and tamales, with their round shapes, are meant to remind people of the sun as it grows stronger and climbs higher in the sky.
In France, this Feb. 2 celebration is called Chandeleur; in Mexico, it’s Día de la Candelaria. Neither name has anything to do with pancakes, but instead refer to candles.
Feb. 2 is Candlemas Day in the Catholic Church. It is also the feast known as “the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple” and was long identified as the formal end to the Christmas season. In fact, just as there are old sayings about groundhogs and weather on Feb. 2, there are old sayings about it being bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after Feb. 2.
Until the liturgical changes following Vatican II, Feb. 2 feast was also known as the Purification of Mary. Once the Catholic Church set the Nativity feast on Dec. 25, around the fourth century, Feb. 2 had became the 40th day after Christmas. According to Mosaic Law, a woman who had given birth was unclean for 40 days after the birth of a son — twice that if she had delivered a girl. After that time, she was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem and offered a lamb (or, at least, two doves) as a sacrifice for her purification. Mary obeyed this law (Lk 2: 22-29).
Originally, the feast was simply called “the Feast of the 40th Day” and was marked on Feb. 14: 40 days after Epiphany (which is Christmas Eve in Orthodox churches). In the West, the date became Feb. 2 by the end of the fourth century. By the seventh century, a procession of candles — coming to the church, but not entering it — had also become common. This was to honor Jesus, as proclaimed by Simeon, “a revealing light to the Gentiles.”
Around the same time, the blessing of candles became common. Candles had been used by Christians for a long time. At first, candles may have been purely utilitarian — since Masses were often celebrated in underground catacombs. But it was not long before candles took on a symbolic nature. For example, St. Jerome, in the fourth century, identified them as signs of joy used during the reading of the Gospel.
Once candles became part of liturgical functions, the church required that they contain at least 51 percent pure beeswax. This was because liturgical candles — especially the Paschal Candle of Easter — represented Christ.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia,” citing the Roman Missal of 1875, notes that altar candles should be made of beeswax because “the pure wax extracted by bees from flowers symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from his Virgin Mother.”
Today, the U.S. bishops’ conference only requires that altar candles “provide a living flame without being smoky or noxious and … not stain the altar cloths and coverings.” The Paschal candle is the most special of the liturgical candles and while the use of beeswax is not required for it, its burning light during the Easter season still represents Christ and his risen presence among us.
Early on, blessing of candles became a solemn rite equivalent to the blessing of palms and ashes. Even today, on the weekend closest to Candlemas, many parishes bless candles for people to use in homes. These are most often candles which the parish purchases, but people can also bring their own candles from home.
Blessed candles are sacramentals and have been used in homes for many purposes. (A sacramental has no power by itself, but is a sacred, blessed sign through which we can receive the grace of a sacrament through the prayers of the church.) The uses for blessed candles in the home included being placed at a sickbed, before a holy picture or statue, or in the hands of the dying.
It was also common to light blessed candles during storms. Polish legend says that, during February, Mother Mary protects people from wolves and storms with the light of her own candle. The title of “Mother of God of the Blessed Thunder Candle” (Matka Boska Gromniczna) was given to her.
Mary is sometimes called “the new Eve” because her obedience to God’s will reversed the actions of Adam and Eve in the garden. Returning to the snowdrops of spring, one legend says they sprang from Eve’s tears after she and Adam were banished from Eden. Eve’s world was now an endless winter. But, as she wept, an angel appeared and changed the snowflakes to snowdrops to show Eve that hope remained. In the same way — whether through groundhog shadows, candles or sun-shaped pancakes — we can trust that God will bring us spring at the end of all winters.
Sources: “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “Maryknoll Dictionary”; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; fisheaters.com; travelfranconline.com; churchyear.net; gomexico.about.com; projectbritain.com; Ireland-calling.com; ournorfolk.com; fulldivinity.org; and Marian library at udayton.edu.