Tomorrow is Candlemas: the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, in cultures unspoiled by scientifically rational astronomy the first day of spring, and in much of Western Europe traditionally the day to break ground for the first of the year’s crops. Pagans had astronomy plenty to mark the day, often (plausibly, to celebrate the returning of the light) with fire. The Catholic Church, as it so often did, co-opted the festival for its own purposes, using the day to celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus, the light of the world. And so Catholics brought their candles to the church to have them blessed, whereupon the candles became talismans that could be lit during storms or times of trouble, as an old English poem observed:
This done, each man his candle lights,
Where chiefest seemeth he,
Whose taper greatest may be seen;
And fortunate to be,
Whose candle burneth clear and bright:
A wondrous force and might
Both in these candles lie, which if
At any time they light,
They sure believe that neither storm
Nor tempest cloth abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard,
Nor any devil’s spide,
Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
Nor hurts of frost or hail.
Robert Chambers, ed., The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Collection with the Calendar, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1863), p. 213.
The line between Catholicism and paganism was always a little blurry.
In other custom Candlemas brought a definitive end to the season of Christmas, whose festive decorations of bay and holly and mistletoe were now to be taken down — thoroughly, as another poet warned:
That so the superstitious find
Not 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. Ibid., p. 214.
With the ubiquity of electric lights the blessing of candles has lost some of the punch it packed in former ages, and though a couple of my neighbors might heed that warning about goblins, the only Candlemas custom now widely recalled in America is the one about the weather. Since Candlemas marked the coming of spring, it was believed throughout Western Europe that good weather on that day warned of a long winter yet to come and a bad growing season ahead, while clouds and snow or rain heralded an early spring and good planting. Here’s another old rhyme, a Scottish one:
If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gone at Yule.Ibid., p. 215.
It seems odd to many people today that foul weather would herald an early spring — but to an agrarian mind, of course, rain or snow was nearly always a good sign, especially when no work had immediately to be done in the fields. People may also have felt that winter was going to have its way sooner or later, and that it was best to get it over with. If so, I sympathize: I can’t help thinking, on these gorgeous seventy-degree February days, that come May it will be a hundred and cut the pea crop short again.
In Germany, one version of this custom held that the badger emerged from his burrow on Candlemas day, and that if he found snow he remained above ground, but if he met the sun he withdrew into his hole. In America, the badger became the groundhog — any small animal will do, really — though I believe it was only in the last hundred years or so that anyone thought actually to go in search of a groundhog; previous generations had looked at the sky and judged for themselves whether one might see one’s shadow. We seem largely to have lost the ability to judge anything about the weather for ourselves, and now rely on television. And so in addition to the National Weather Service we have Groundhog Day, on which morning a poor beast is dragged from his den, shaken from a cozy slumber, cameras pointed into his face, and abandoned after some minutes to his muddy hole, where if lucky he returns quickly to sleep and recalls the whole nasty business one sunny afternoon in late May only as a bizarre dream that he dares not mention to his mate for fear of scornful laughter. Pity the poor Marmota monax, who deserves a bit of doggerel of his own:
If on Candlemas the groundhog sees
His shade beneath the bare-limbed trees,
Then back to bed, and lad and lass
Will yet feel Jack Frost bite their ass.
But if he finds gray sky and snow,
Then spring is coming, don’t you know!
He’ll stay above ground, and soon be startin’
To eat every damned thing in your garden.
But to focus on the weather of a morning ignores the salient point, which is that spring is coming, sooner or later. The combination of Southern climate and global warming might sap some of the drama from that realization, but the sky stays light a full hour later than two months ago, the daffodils in the woods are stretching towards the sparse evergreen canopy, the lettuce has sprouted under its cold frame and the chives in the bed by the door. It’s always possible to believe that spring is coming, even in the darkest, coldest nights around the solstice, but we of little faith appreciate the signs. So dig out a candle, a good beeswax one, and ask a blessing on it — you can do this sort of thing even if you’re an atheist, you know; it’s good for your soul even if you don’t think you have one. Light it when the first summer storm knocks out your power just as you were trying to cook your dinner, and remember that the light always does return.