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Candlemas (kănˈdəlməs), Feb. 2, Christian festival commemorating the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The name Candlemas is derived from the procession of candles, inspired by the words of Simeon “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2.32). In the Roman Catholic Church the candles for use in the ensuing year are blessed on this day. An old superstition claims that the weather is foretold by the ground hog (see woodchuck) on Candlemas.
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Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple,

Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin,

The Meeting of the Lord

The Gospel according to Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus to the temple six weeks after his birth (Luke 2:22-24). Once there they observed the Jewish ceremony by which firstborn sons were presented to God. Furthermore, Mary fulfilled the purification rites, which Jewish law required women to undergo forty days after the birth of a son. Another very significant event occurred while the Holy Family was at the temple. Simeon and Anna, a holy man and a prophetess, recognized the infant as the Messiah. Simeon declared that the child would be "a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). The Christian feast of Candlemas commemorates all these events. It is celebrated on February 2, forty days after Christmas. Candlemas gets its name from a number of candle-related customs connected with the feast. By the Middle Ages the blessing of candles, the distribution of blessed candles among parishioners, and candlelit processions had all established themselves as common elements in western European Candlemas services.


The earliest known description of the feast comes from late fourthcentury Jerusalem. This early celebration consisted of a solemn procession followed by a sermon and mass. The description named the feast simply "the fortieth day after Epiphany." Since at that time Jerusalem Christians were celebrating both Epiphany and the Nativity on January 6, the festival fell on the fourteenth of February (seealso December 25). From Jerusalem the new festival spread throughout the East. The Greeks called it Hypapante Kyriou, or "The Meeting of the Lord," a name that reflected their emphasis on the meeting between Simeon, Anna, and the infant Jesus. The feast began to appear in the West in the seventh and eighth centuries. Westerners celebrated it on February 2, since by that time Rome had assigned the celebration of the Nativity to December 25. Roman officials called the feast the "Purification of Mary," reflecting their emphasis on Mary's fulfillment of Jewish law.

Several centuries passed before western European Candlemas observances consolidated around a distinctive set of traditions. Candles were used in the services as early as the mid-fifth century in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Pope Sergius I (687-701 ited with ordering the first candlelit processions to accompany church services in Rome. In what is now France, the blessing of candles developed during the Carolingian Empire, near the close of the eighth century. By the eleventh century the blessing of candles, the distribution of blessed candles, and candlelit processions had become widespread elements in the western European observance of Candlemas. The feast got its English name, Candlemas, meaning quite literally "candle mass," from these customs. Since the eighteenth century the representatives of various religious communities have offered the pope large, decorated candles on Candlemas.

Contemporary Candlemas services generally emphasize Christ as the Light of the World. In addition, the officiant often blesses and distributes beeswax candles. In some traditions parishioners bring candles from home to be blessed during the service. In past times Candlemas processions filed out into the churchyard and past the graves of the departed. Contemporary Candlemas processions, however, usually remain within the church.

Some researchers suggest that Christians simply adopted Candlemas and its customs from pagan celebrations held at the same time of year. On February 1 the pagan Celts celebrated Imbolc, a festival associated with the return of the spring goddess Bride (later, St. Bridget). In some areas sacred fires and candles burned through the night in honor of Bride's return. In ancient Rome people observed purification rites throughout the month of February, which included a procession through the city with lit candles. In addition, they celebrated the return of their spring goddess, Ceres, on February first. Pagans in other Mediterranean cultures also welcomed the return of a spring deity. Many of these observances featured fire rituals and torchlit processions.

While some writers believe that these pagan practices gave rise to the observance of Candlemas and its customs, most contemporary scholars doubt that these pagan rituals exerted strong influence on medieval Christians. The doubters point out that these pagan fire ceremonies had died out by the time candles became part of the Christian festival. They also claim a specifically Christian symbolism for the Candlemas tapers. The candles recall the words of Simeon who proclaimed that Jesus would become "a light" unto the Gentiles.

Christmas Customs

Jesus' presentation in the temple and Mary's fulfillment of the rites of purification mark the end of the series of events associated with Jesus' birth in the Gospels. In a similar vein, many old European Christmas customs were practiced until Candlemas. For example, in some areas Nativity scenes were taken apart and put away on Candlemas. In other areas Christmas greenery - such as rosemary, laurel, mistletoe, holly, and ivy - and other seasonal decorations were finally removed on Candlemas. The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) summarized Devonshire folk customs and beliefs concerning the removal of such decorations in the following poem:

Candlemas Eve Carol

Down with rosemary, and so Down with bays and mistletoe; Down with the holly, ivy, all Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas hall, That so the superstitious find No one least branch there left behind; For look, how many leaves there be Neglected there, maids, trust to me, So many goblins you shall see [Urlin, 1992, 30].

In another verse Herrick informs us that the Yule log was kindled one last time on Candlemas and then stored till the following year. Herrick implies that Candlemas concludes the Christmas season with the following lines:

End now the White Loafe and the Pye And let all sports with Christmas dye [Miles, 1990, 353].

Herrick's sentiments echo the lyrics of a fifteenth-century English Christmas carol, which exclaims, "Syng we Yole tyl Candlemas" (Sing we Yule till Candlemas).

Further Reading

Chambers, Robert. "February 2 - Candlemass." In his The Book of Days. Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cowie, L. W., and John Selwyn Gummer. The Christian Calendar. Springfield, Mass.: C. and G. Merriam Company, 1974. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1991. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1993. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996. Smith, C. "Candlemas." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 3. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Toon, Peter. "Candle; Candlemas." In J. D. Douglas, ed. The New Inter-national Dictionary of the Christian Church. Revised edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978. Urlin, Ethel. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Weiser, Francis X. The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian), Folkloric
Date of Observation: February 2
Where Celebrated: United States and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Groundhog


Candlemas is a Christian holiday marking forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

According to the law of Moses, it was the parents' duty to bring their firstborn son to the church and make an offering to God on his behalf. This usually took place on the fortieth day following the child's birth. After observing the traditional forty-day period of purification following the baby's birth, therefore, Mary presented Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. An aged and devout Jew named Simeon held the baby in his arms and announced that he would be a "light to lighten the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). This is why February 2 (which is forty days after CHRISTMAS ) came to be called Candlemas (Candelaria in Spanish-speaking countries) and has been celebrated by the blessing of CANDLES since the eleventh century. In the Eastern church, it is known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, while in the Western church it is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But both festivals celebrate the same sequence of events and are characterized by the blessing of candles and candlelight processions.

Some think that the custom of forming a procession with lighted candles was not originally a Christian idea but was instead an attempt to create a Christian identity for an ancient Roman rite that took place in February and consisted of a procession around the city with lighted candles. Roman Christians borrowed the practice of using candles in religious services, and in 494 C . E . Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. The Feast of the Purification was also the time to kindle a "brand" left over from the Yule log at Christmas.



Some researchers believe the candles custom of Candlemas derived from customs from pagan celebrations held at the same time of year. On February 1 the pagan Celts celebrated IMBOLC, a festival associated with the return of the spring goddess Bride (later St. Bridget). In some areas sacred fires and candles burned through the night in honor of Bride's return. In ancient Rome, people observed purification rites throughout the month of February, which included a procession throught the city with lit candles. In addition, they celebrated the return of the spring goddess Ceres on February 1. Pagans in other Mediterranean cultures also welcomed the return of a spring deity. Many of these observances featured fire rituals and torchlit processions, which some scholars see as the origin of the candlelight processions now associated with Candlemas. In addition, lamps and candles are a traditional symbol of rejoicing. During the Middle Ages, Candlemas was the day on which the church blessed candles for the entire year. There was a procession of worshippers holding candles in their hands, and people believed that wherever these candles were used, they would chase away the devil. The unused candle stubs were often preserved as good-luck charms. In many Roman Catholic countries today, the candles blessed on Candlemas are still regarded as possessing special powers. In Brittany, France, for example, they are lit in times of storm or illness. In parts of Austria, they are lit at important family occasions such as christenings and funerals. In Sicily, the Candlemas candles are brought out when there is an earthquake or when someone is dying.

The candles that are "purified" or blessed in the church on February 2 are also used to bless people's throats on ST. BLAISE'S DAY (February 3), protecting them from colds and from fishbones getting stuck.


In the United States, February 2 is popularly known as Groundhog Day. There was a medieval superstition that all hibernating animals-not just groundhogs-came out of their caves and dens on Candlemas to check on the weather. If they could see their shadows, it meant that winter would go on for another six weeks and they could go back to sleep. A cloudy day meant that spring was just around the corner. Farmers in England, France, and Canada used to look for the stirring of the "Candlemas Bear" as a sign that spring was on its way; in Ireland, it was the hedgehog; and in Germany, it was the badger. The return of hibernating animals was one of several ways in which nature announced a change in the season, and those whose livelihood depended upon natural cycles were very attuned to such signs.

It was the early German settlers known as the Pennsylvania Dutch who brought this custom to the United States and chose the groundhog as their harbinger of spring. No one really knows why the weather on this day was believed to indicate the reverse of what was to come: Good weather meant prolonged winter, and cloudy weather meant an early spring. But the tradition took hold in America, giving rise to the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog in Pennsylvania believed to be nearly a century old. There is a club in Punxsutawney whose members still trek up to Phil's burrow on February 2 and wait for him to emerge. Unfortunately, weather researchers have determined that the groundhog has been correct only 28 percent of the time.

If February 2 seems a little early to look for signs of spring, remember that before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, Candlemas fell on February 14. Until recently, farmers in Mississippi and Arkansas observed Groundhog Day on the fourteenth because it was closer to the arrival of warm weather. Candlemas


Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.


New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


February 2
After observing the traditional 40-day period of purification following the birth of Jesus, Mary presented him to God at the Temple in Jerusalem. According to a New Testament gospel, an aged and devout Jew named Simeon held the baby in his arms and said that he would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). It is for this reason that February 2 has come to be called Candlemas (or Candelaria in Spanish-speaking countries) and has been celebrated by the blessing of candles since the 11th century. In both the Eastern and Western churches, it is now known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple ; in the Roman Catholic Church, it was formerly called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary . In the United States, February 2 is also Groundhog Day; in Great Britain it is said that the badger comes out to test the weather. The old rhyme is as follows:
If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half of winter's to come and mair.
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half of winter's gone at Yule.
See also Candelaria; Mihr, Festival of
Orthodox Church in America
P.O. Box 675
Syosset, NY 11791
516-922-0550; fax: 516-922-0954
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 111
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 212
BkFest-1937, p. 226
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 45
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 181, 186, 787
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 95
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 27
FestWestEur-1958, p. 105
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 69
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 113
OxYear-1999, pp. 61, 63
RelHolCal-2004, pp. 90, 117
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 90

Celebrated in: Liechtenstein

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


Christianity Feb. 2, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the Temple: the day on which the church candles are blessed. In Scotland it is one of the four quarter days
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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