Candlemas is one of those festivials that unless you are Catholic, Orthodox, or one of those weird Waldorfers, or worse yet a Medievalist!, you will probably never have heard of. Like most Christian festivals it hearkens back to a pagan festival, this one honoring the return of light to the world and the lengthening of the days. It is called Candlemas, oddly enough, because “candles” were blessed at this “Mass” (get it–Candle-Mass?)–both the candles used in the church and the candles used in homes. During the Middle Ages, these blessed candles were lit during thunderstorms and illness in the belief that, being “blessed,” they would cast out any demons that were wreaking havoc. This was especially true at the deathbed of someone, when it was believed that demons put on a barrage to win that person’s soul away from Christ. It is so easy for us slaves of Modernity to laugh at such superstitions (I’m curious to know what the Catholic church’s position is on this today…???) but we really need to treat these peoples with empathy, knowing they lived in a tumultuous world where pestilence, famine, and violent invasion were merely breaths away. I imagine had I lived back then I would have been breaking out the blessed candles at every sniffle.
Thankfully, our homes and lives are far more tame than in 1200. As an evangelical Protestant, and one who was not raised in a liturgical Protestant tradition at that, I find these more obscure festivals both challenging and innovative–challenging in the sense that I have to get a grasp on what the festival is about and innovative in that I come to it with no preconceived notions. With Candlemas, I see it as the counterpoint to Martinmas and the bridge festival between Christmas and Lent. At Martinmas (mid-November) we do a lantern walk to symbolize the retreat of the sun and the need to hold a part of it with us to carry us through the winter. It also is in preparation for the “waiting days” of Advent that precede Christmas, which following December 25th is filled with light at our house since for the first time we light an enormous new Christ candle (it has to last all year!) and 12 additional candles marking the 12 days of Christmas. So, with this connection to Martinmas, we broke out our handmade Martinmas lanterns and once again walked by their light, only this time inside, as it is a frozen tundra where we live at the moment. Just as the Martinmas lanterns saw the sun go to sleep, so did they witness the sun coming back to life (and, as if to make this poetry manifest, we had SUN today ALL day for the first time since I can remember this winter, which was lovely since we actually had to celebrate Candlemas a day late this year and yesterday was ghastly). Obviously, this imagery pays homage to the pagan origins of Candlemas, but what about the Christian part? Candlemas is also the day when historically the church celebrates the end of Mary’s 40 days of Purification and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presentation_of_Jesus_at_the_Temple ). It was at this time that both Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus as the Messiah and hailed him as the “light of the world,” hence the candle connection. Being a “bridge” between Christmas and Lent, it is at Candlemas that we melt our Advent candles into Holy Week candles–1 white for Palm Sunday (this is made from last year’s Christ candle, which by Advent is a mere stub and packed away for the last time, and the remains of our Christmas week candles), 5 purple candles, and 1 pink candle for Good Friday, along with a large “jar” type purple Lenten candle to light for the season of Lent along with our Christ candle at our evening Bible time–or what, as a Medievalist, I like to think of as Compline.
The order of events (I’m writing this out mostly for myself for next year so I can keep track. I apologize in advance for including such nit-picking detail):
Breakfast–traditionally this is pancakes but today we had cheese toast cut into candle flames and mandarin oranges
Breakfast story—-Arrow to the Sun retold by Gerald McDermott (a lovely Pueblo Indian tale about a son seeking his father who is the Lord of the Sun–some interesting Incarnational/Resurrection imagery in there too!).
The Lunch story- Raven, also by Gerald McDermott (a trickster tale of a raven who brings back the sun)
Post-lunch puppet show–I made up this story about Father Sun who is under a spell by the evil North Wind and Mother Time is looking for anyone brave enough to break the spell. After searching all through the earth to find that all the animals have an excuse for why they cannot volunteer, at last a tiny song sparrow steps up and says she will do it. After flying over the mountains and past the land of many rivers she finds Father Sun under a thick blanket of snow. After trying to wake him by beating her wings and pecking his cheek, but failing both times and being mocked by the evil North Wind, does she attempt one last time, and this time she sings the loveliest of the songs she knows. And slowly the warmth of her courage melts the blanket of ice and Father Sun awakes to drive out North Wind from the earth. (I had Cecily help set up the scenery with mountains and a forest and also make a needle-felt puppet of the song sparrow.)
*Next year I want either our morning or afternoon “craft” to be baking a small yellow cake to have later. Today we made it after dinner and it was still so hot by the time we needed it that it melted the bottoms of the hand-dipped candles we put into it. Not good eats, my friend.*
Dinner–Savory pancakes (last year we did Potato pancakes, and this year we had Crab pancakes) and pumpkin soup. (*Reminder to self: Make soup the day before. It’s too much to do along with everything else. I remember feeling like that last year too but forgot this year, so now it’s in print.). Also, make sure to start wax melting during dinner preparation for hand-dipping candles afterward. It always takes longer than you think for wax to melt.
*Post Dinner set-up of replica Hebrew Temple: Make sure to include a rainbow silk suspended between 2 dining chairs for the “Beautiful Gate” entrance to the Temple, which is actually a little montage of things on our dining table–our Candlemas painting, a 2000-year old oil lamp from Israel with an orange and yellow ribbon flame coming out at the tip, a picture of Simeon holding baby Jesus, our Christ candle, and the cake baked above to symbolize the Bread of the Presence. Tonight Cecily added 12 stones to represent the 12 Tribes of Israel, which I thought was a cute touch.
After dinner celebration–Hand-dipping of 5 candles to represent Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon, and baby Jesus. As we waited for each dipping to dry we walked around our table singing the chorus of, “Shine, Jesus, Shine” ( which hopefully sounded less hokey than this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3iB30gCqAc ). After we dipped our candles, we turned off our overhead lights, lighting only our Christ candle at the Temple and Martinmas lanterns. Each carrying the candles that we made (Cecily was in charge of the baby Jesus candle, I had the Mary candle, and Tim had Joseph–the Simeon and Anna candles were already stuck in the cake awaiting us to arrive at the Temple) we processed to the “Temple” by lantern light, singing the hauntingly simplistic and stunning Taize chant, “When the night becomes dark, your love, O Lord, is a fire.” I’m always a sucker for that one when we’re singing by candlelight–I admit it! Once we arrived at the “Temple,” we placed our candles in the cake, lighting them from the Christ candle, and then read the Biblical account of the Presentation. After singing the first full verse and chorus of “Shine, Jesus, Shine” again, we blew out the cake candles and dug in, except for the bits that had melted wax (cf., complaint stated above about cake not having time too cool). After eating cake, we all went back to the Temple, sang “This Little Light of Mine,” and then blew out our lanterns followed by the Christ candle. (I always feel a wee bit guilty singing that song before we blow OUT candles, but I felt we needed to sing it at some point today!)
Our bedtime story was a story I made up about a little fire fairy who wants to dance but everywhere she tries it isn’t the right place (like the clouds blow her away and the ocean makes her flame fizzle out) until she alights upon a soft pillar of wax and dances the night away.
My last reminder to myself is to next year, make Holy Week candles the night before (because this is an EFFORT!) and not the day of Candlemas. I’m thinking we’ll just place them in our Holy Week candleholder on Candlemas and put the candleholder at the Temple. I think the only candles we should actually make on Candlmas should be the hand-dipped tapers for the Temple cake. Any more is too much with everything else going on.
And thus, ends our Candlemas liturgy and mama is exhausted and daddy is trying to fix the botched mess I made of our Holy Week votives today (well, in all honesty, I did say they were an EFFORT). All in all, though, it was a lovely and meaningful celebration. Cecily’s favorite bit was my last-minute idea to set up a Temple. She LOVED that. At least this year we get a full month before Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. I need the break!