Today is the first of February, and tomorrow is Candlemas. This obscure Christian festival marks the day when the baby Jesus was supposed to have been presented at the temple at Jerusalem, and was recognised by Simeon and Anna as the Messiah. But why is it called Candlemas?
February 2nd is exactly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it’s a notable moment in the calendar. There are lots of other festivals around the same time, mainly related to spring-cleaning, the weather, and the return of the sun, and these may give us a clue as to where Candlemas really comes from.
The Roman festival of Februalia (which gave its name to the whole month) involves a lot of washing and ritual purification. And the Irish festival of Imbolc was on February 1st – later adopted by the Christian church in Ireland as St Bridget’s day. As the name Imbolc seems to come from the Old Irish imb-fholc, meaning to wash oneself, Imbolc may also be a festival of spring-cleaning.
Today in Canada and the USA, February 2nd is Groundhog Day. On this day, groundhogs are supposed to come out of hibernation and look around. If they can see their shadow, they return underground for another six weeks; but if the weather is cloudy, apparently winter is over. This tradition seems to have come from Germany (where the animal responsible was the badger, bear or fox) but no-one seems to know how old it is.
There is a parallel tradition for Candlemas, with the saying If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again. So it is an auspicious day for foretelling the weather.
Candlemas has involved candles since at least 600 AD, when there’s a description of them being lit in Jerusalem. There may be a clue as to why in the song of Simeon in the temple, the Nunc Dimittis, which appears in the Gospel of Luke. It says that Jesus will be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’.
Of course before about 1800 AD candles were a very important part of everyday life. That’s when gas lights were introduced, and then electricity came along about a century later, with the incandescent bulb – invented not by Edison, as most people think, but by Joseph Swan of Newcastle.
Before this, you were largely reliant on candles for lighting. And in the middle of winter that’s from about 4pm in the afternoon to 7am the next morning – 15 hours. We have become so used to electric light that we hardly notice it’s dark for so long.
It’s around the start of February that you get really desperate for the winter to end, and start washing the mud off everything, lighting all your candles, and even consulting hibernating animals.
We have a lot of candle-holders on the PAS database, but perhaps the most evocative are the medieval folding candlesticks which could have been used by travellers.
On the left is SF4651, found at West Stow, Suffolk, in 2001 – coincidentally, the record was created on Candlemas! It has a socket for the candle, riveted to the top of a strip which is hinged at the bottom. Also pivoting on this hinge is a spike, which can fold into a split in the front of the socket.
The hinge has three settings, shown by the slots on it – one for folded up, one for the spike unfolded half open and one for fully open. The final element of the candlestick is really difficult to see, but it is just visible on the middle photo – it is an arm that swings in and out of the slot to lock the spike in any position.
The other one (NMS-D22F86) is from Larling in Norfolk. The West Stow example is stuck in the folded-up position, but the Larling one is stuck in the folded-out position, so you can see how the spike could have been stuck into a table top and the candlestick would then be upright and ready to use. In half-folded position it would have been L-shaped, so you could have jammed the spike into a door, or a window, or a wall beam, and the candlestick would have been locked in this right-angled position, with the socket still upright so you could light your candle safely.
I can’t help feeling that there would be a market for a candle-holder like this today. It’s a real proper gadget, fits in the pocket and you can take it anywhere, giving you a decent light anywhere – whether or not you have electricity. Happy Candlemas!