A Potpourri of Candlemas Folklore from Continental Europe
Candlemas is a feast of light. The phase of daylight is perceptibly longer, and in Catholic Churches all over the world candles and wax tapers, which the women of the community have brought with them to church, are blessed during the ritual.
In the liturgical year of the Catholic Church the 2nd of February is the last of the holidays, belonging to the christmas cycle. It is dedicated to the Holy Virgin.
According to legend Mary has visited the temple in Jerusalem for the first time 40 days after having given birth to Jesus.
Candlemas folklore focusses on the blessing and healing power of the Holy Virgin, the Mother Goddess. Memory of her comforting and healing powers is deeply rooted in humanity’s collective consciousness.
In the region of Teutoburger Forest in the northwest of Germany women celebrated also the meeting of the Holy Virgin with her mother Anna, the grandmom of Jesus, at Candlemas. Here we may perceive the pagan ideas of that time in the wheel of seasons: The young woman of spring, overtakes the throne from the old wise grandmother of winter.
It is a point of pausing for a moment between the seasons, an instant to realise change and transience, but at the same time being carried by the realisation of all life being in the comforting custody of the goddess of 10.000 names – Demeter and Persephone, Mother Hulda and Freya, Maria and Anna…
Whenever a candle dedicated to the goddess is kindled, it’s flame radiates forth the divine blessing, unfolding like a fragrant flower, filling the room with it’s healing odour.
Never these candles are kindled for profane purposes. But when divine interference is desired, the sacred candle is kindled, accompanied by prayers to the Holy Virgin.
Often incense is set to burn, too, and holy water is sprinkled.
For a deeper understanding of the immense importance people gave to the awakening light of Candlemas it may be helpful to walk back in history with our imagination and enter a typical German medieval farmhouse.
This is not a rich nobleman’s habitation; it is just one of the half timbered houses in one of the river valleys below the gentle hills of Teutoburger Forest.
In the last light of the day we enter the little house. Our eyes must get used to the gloaming light, which is shining from the glowing embers in the fireplace, filling with flickering light and warmth the small room, shelter for humans and animals during the cold season.
You hear the howling of the wind; and you are happy to be safe in here from the snow storm which is drawing near.
As meanwhile night has spread her wings over hills and forests, the only source of light is from the smouldering logs in the fireplace and from a flickering torch, which is made from old lumps, soaked in fat, burning away with a flickering light and the unpleasant odour of nidorous lard and smouldering old lumps.
The noise of the raging winter storm is drawing nearer. The spirits of winter are performing their wild and whirling dance around the house.
The fearful inhabitants of the house assemble around the table to pray for protection against any damage which might be caused by the raging storm or the spirits riding on it..
Now the blessed candle is put on the table, and as soon as the shining light is filling the room, the threatening schemes and whispering shadows are shrinking back into darkness, receiding from the candle flame’s spreading light, which is spending comfort and confidence and the sweet fragrance of the beeswax candle makes sweet memories of summer and humming bees rise in the mind…
In those days long before the invention of electricity and the electrification of cities and countryside the usual working day ended with sunset. Only very rich people could enjoy the luxury of illuminating their habitations after sunset; and even then they mostly used torches, which filled the castles’ rooms with smoke and unpleasant smells.
The beeswax candles, which are burning with a steady flame and lovely fragrance were reserved for cathedrals and chapels, churches and monasteries. The latter were often running apiaries, which granted them a steady supply of wax and honey.
When the sacred beeswax candle is kindled, the presence of the goddess may be felt filling the room: Isis is spreading her heavenly wings; the Holy Virgin unfolds her starry mantle of loving comfort.
Those, who turn to Her in prayer may feel new confidence filling them in moments of anxiety, healing rays of divine love, when the candle is lit for one suffering from illness, and the heartwarming certainty of a safe refuge is granted as the worshipper is turning to Her for help whenever the heart is doubting or worried.
It is the blessing of the goddess that unfolds as the candle is lit at the woman’s bed during childbirth and at the sickbed of the suffering patient.
It is Her divine presence that manifests in the bright light of the sacred candle and which is accompanying all kinds of passages: that of dying, when a household member leaves for the Otherworld and that of birth, when a soul has found it’s path from the land of spirits into the community of earthly beings.
Whenever the blessed candle is lit with a prayer to Her,the fear dispelling presence of the Divine Mother manifests to fill the worrying heart with renewed joy and refreshing vitality.
At certain times, when evil spirits were thought to haunt the area, all entrances, windows, back doors, stables’ and houses’ thresholds were magically sealed with a few drops of the sacred candle’s wax for protection.
Having the door sealed with the wax is like having the Holy Virgin, Goddess Herself and one of the archangels staying on the threshold to guard the house and all inside.
Each time when a child had been born a small cross, made from the blessed candle’s wax has been fixed to the sitting room’s door.
Crosses made from that wax were also fixed to the rooms’ ceilings, on the bark of each fruit tree and on the plough and wagon’s drawbar.
People, who wanted to be very cautious even fixed a tiny cross of wax to the inside of their hats.
According to folklore the candle, which is blessed on Candlemas, is 10 times stronger in it’s beneficial power if the 2nd of February falls on a Sunday.
Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season, but it is before the beginning of spring. Churches deinstall their Christmas decorations, crips and christmas trees.
Candlemas as an occasion, when the gates between the worlds are open wide had been celebrated in some parts of Northern Europe as a feast for humans and nature spirits: the lady of the household invited the servants to meet and assemble around the baking oven and have a party, eating little sweet breads, which were shared with the elves, the regional spirits of the environment.
In some parts of southern Germany the lady of the house kindled three sacred candles; one of these was put on the table for the Holy Virgin; one was under the table for for the children, who had died without being baptized; and the third had been kindled for the departed souls and was placed on the rim of the house´s basin of holy water.
On the farms in TeutoForest people knew, that no more than half of the winter stocks should have been consumed; people “don’t eat their supper at light” anymore, as there is sufficient daylight now to have supper before nightfall.
Candlemas, being also a day between the agricultural seasons, near the end of winter but before the beginning of spring, the date also marks the end of the employment of servants in some regions in the northwest of Germany. They are dismissed and get their pay and a freshly baked bread or cake from the lady of the house.
In some regions in Westphalia Candlemas had been the most important festival of the spinning room communities, and the occasion has been celebrated with music, dancing and merriment.
Anyway , the work of spinning, weaving, sewing and mending clothes should not be done at Candlemas, as this would lead to misfortune being spun, woven, sewn or mended into the textile. The idea behind that taboo may be that all the misfortune whirled up by the prayers for good fortune on that day may try to go into anything not complete or accomplished.
Noisy work in and outside the house, such as chopping wood, was under taboo in the same regions, too. The reason behind that was the idea that rumbling noises on that important day would attract thunder and lightning to the place all over the year.
The day on the threshold between winter and spring was also predestined for all kinds of sympathetic magic to ensure rich crops, material success in all fields of life and protection from all evil.
In some parts of southern Germany the farmer or the oldest child in the family had to go three times deosil around the house, drawing behind them an iron chain to keep the serpents away from the habitation. The idea behind this may be rooted in the idea of nature spirits appearing as serpents. Before Christianisation people kept grass snakes for luck and offered milk to them to attract good fortune. As folklore says, that nature spirits are afraid of iron, the act of encircling the house, drawing an iron chain behind may have been an act to protect the house from unfriendly spirits.
On Candlemas the hens’ nests are cleaned, and all feathered members of the household are fed inside a circle, made by a rope lying in that shape on the soil. This act of sympathetic magic is said to have the effect, that the hens are prevented from laying their eggs outside the chicken garden’s territory.
Children, who are born at Candlemas were said to be taken back to heaven by the Holy Virgin after only a short intermezzo on earth.
If these children survived and reached adulthood , these “children of Mary” were said to be able to “see all”, which means, that they will have the gift of clairvoyance or even prophecy.
Nowadays many worshippers of the goddess celebrate Candlemas as a feast of light, during which candles are brought to be blessed.
In many European countries Candlemas traditions focus on the Holy Virgin and the blessing of candles. In countries with a strong Celtic tradition, as it is the case for Ireland and Scotland, the name of the feast is “Imbolc”, and folklore related to it focusses on St. Brighidh of Kildare and the blessing of wells and fountains.
The folklore related to Brigidh offers material for another discourse in this blog.