Today is Candlemas, a day set aside to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ as well as the Feast of the Purification of Mary. Although most people think of February 2 as Groundhog Day, the truth is that the importance of this day dates back to pagan Celtic and Roman times. We are now halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and back in the day this was a huge cause for celebration. It meant that the food hadn’t run out, the winter cold hadn’t taken your life, and the bandits who hadn’t prepared for winter had either been repelled or disappeared.

WikiCommons License: St. Patrick’s Cathedral (RC), Armagh, County Armagh, Northern Ireland: Lower part of the stained glass window in the north wall of the west transept (liturgically north), depicting St. Mel and St. Brigid. 24 September 2013 Photographed by Andreas F. Borchert

When society was more agrarian, people lived by the seasons. They marked the Solstices (the longest and shortest days of the years) and the Equinoxes (halfway point between the Solstices). But they also celebrated on the quarter days, and Candlemas was one of the most important. It was a festival of light that represented hope that the days would eventually get longer. It was also a time to go through the pantries and eat food that might be going bad like soft apples and squash, or grains that were getting moldy. One of the foods served during this time was unleavened cakes and breads, including pancakes.

In the Celtic lands, this day was also known as Imbolc, a feast day that celebrated the Irish goddess Brigid (not to be confused with the Irish Saint Brigid). The pagan Brigid was the goddess of the dawn, of fertility, and of healing. It was also the beginning of the lambing season which represented the coming of spring. People lit bonfires and candles to represent the warmth of the sun. When the idea of Imbolc merged with the real-life person of Saint Brigid, the feasts became Christian. Now people use the Feast of St. Brigid on February 1 to celebrate home and hearth and new life. People in Ireland still visit holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid to bring back water to bless their homes. They also make St. Brigid crosses (made from reeds or straw) to give to their neighbors as a way to offer hope and love to their community.

In Europe, as pagan people turned to Christianity, this time of year–which is 40 days after Christmas–became known as the fortieth day of Epiphany. It became an official Christian holiday in 6th century when Pope Sergio’s instituted this festival in Rome. During the Dark Ages, when people were desperate for relief from the plague, they began celebrating this day with processions that honored the Blessed Mother and her Feast of the Purification. By the 11th Century, people would process to the church and get their candles (all the ones they’d use for the year) blessed. Even today, the church blesses all of the candles they will use during the year on Candlemas. (The word Candlemas comes from “Candle + Mass”)

So how did Ground Hogs steal this festival of Candlemas? Many historians believe it dates back to an old Scottish verse:

If Candlemass Day be dry and fair,

The half o’winter’s to come and mair [more];

If Candlemass Day be wet and foul,

The half of winter’s gane [gone] at Yule.

So if it’s sunny and dry on February 2, Winter will continue. But if it’s cloudy, Spring is almost here. This belief was reinforced by the behaviors of bears who would either stay in hibernation or leave hibernation early. As the decades went by, bears became ground hogs. Now, if the ground hog sees his shadow on a sunny day he gets scared and hibernates for another six weeks of Winter. But if he doesn’t see his shadow, he won’t be scared and Spring will come early.

When you combine all of these stories, you still come to the same conclusion: Candlemas is the day we celebrate the ending of dark days the promise that light will arrive soon. Because I love holidays that have their own special foods, I’ve included a recipe for Gingerbread Pancakes. They are easy to make and, because it’s still the last day of the Epiphany, these pancakes have a holiday flavor. I hope you all have a wonderful Candlemas. And don’t forget to light your candles and eat pancakes. Because Spring will be here soon.


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