February 2nd is celebrated as Candlemas, which is both the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The background lies in the Old Testament book of Leviticus where the Israelites were instructed that seven days after his birth a son should be brought for circumcision and then 33 days after that his mother was to come to the Temple to be made ritually clean (Leviticus 12:1-5).
It is important not to get annoyed by the language. When Leviticus uses terminology such as “clean” and “unclean” we often have a tendency to substitute “good” and “bad”. But that’s a wrong interpretation of what Leviticus is trying to convey. For the writers of the Bible all of life was good and was declared to be so: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Therefore, all of life, whether clean or unclean, was destined to be saved in the story of Noah and the Ark and all of life, whether clean or unclean, were to be the beneficiaries of God’s covenant promises. The Lion is described as an unclean animal in Levitical terminology, but the King can nevertheless honourably be described as the Lion of Judah. So clean and unclean are categories of being, not statements of worthiness.
One of the concerns of Leviticus is to understand the boundaries between the divine and the ordinary, asking how they might co-exist together. In Leviticus 10:10 the distinction is stated: “you must distinguish between the holy and the common; between the unclean and the clean”. We are creatures imbued with the divine life that impregnates all living things (Gen 2:7), so how might the divine and the ordinary be able to co-exist in each one of us? The belief was that the divine life was located in the blood, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17: 11) and whenever an animal was killed the blood was held to be sacred to God, either spread on the altar or allowed to soak into the ground.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that menstruation and childbirth would attract special attention because either the blood leaves a woman and is released (menstruation), or life leaves a woman and becomes independent of her (childbirth). It’s a big deal because in both cases the divine is no longer contained by the ordinary in the way that it once was. It’s also worth pointing out that, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas commented when writing about Leviticus (Leviticus as Literature, OUP 2001), to be declared ritually unclean gave the woman the opportunity to stay at home and look after her child. Being unclean she was not allowed to go to the temple or prepare food for others, instead she had 40 days of complete rest being freed from the normal responsibilities of womanhood!
The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Candlemas) as told in Luke 2:22-40 picks up the story when Mary comes to the Temple for the ritual that will enable her to rejoin community life. It was to be achieved through sacrifice, the shedding of blood (a divine attribute) in order to restore the status quo between the divine and the ordinary. In Leviticus it states that if you were wealthy a lamb should be sacrificed, if you weren’t then two doves or two young pigeons. We may deduce from Luke’s account of this event that Jesus’ family were not wealthy since they use the cheaper sacrifice.
But in European culture there’s another symbolism to Candlemas which is tied to the cycle of the seasons. The early church had fixed the day of Christ’s birth as December 25th, which in the northern hemisphere is tied to the winter solstice, the shortest day. The symbolism was deliberate, in the midst of the darkest time a new light has dawned. Following the strictures in Leviticus, the Feast of Christ’s circumcision would therefore occur seven days later on January 1st and the day when the mother came to be made ritually clean would occur 33 days after that, on February 2nd.
But this also means that Candlemas is located half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, in other words it is the day on which winter is half way over. The coincidence arose because to some extent the church was occupying territory which was already occupied, by the pagan festival of Imbolc which took place on February 2nd. Imbolc means “in the belly” and it signifies the start of Spring and the quickening of the year. The symbolism is that the earth is pregnant with expectation (“in the belly”) and the festival was to remind people of the coming hope. Fire was used as a symbol of renewal and candles were lit at Imbolc. Christians didn’t compete with this ancient belief, they transformed it – lighting candles to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3).
Nevertheless, the link between Candlemas and the natural cycle persisted in folklore throughout western Europe. For example, in the following verse (to be read with a Scottish accent)
If Candlemas Day be dry and fair
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul
The half o’ winter’s gone at Yule
If Candlemas Day is dry, there will be more bad weather to come: if Candlemas Day is foul, then half of winter’s already gone.
In the eastern United States this has become Ground Hog Day. The ground hog or wood chuck (Marmota Monax) is a member of the squirrel family that lives in burrows underground. The Dutch who emigrated to Pennsylvania took their folklore associated with Candlemas to the New World and observed the behaviour of these burrowing squirrels. From this developed the idea that if a ground hog emerged from its burrow on February 2nd and was spooked by shadows because the sky was clear so that it darted back underground, the winter would persist for another six weeks (half o’winter’s to come and mair). However, if the ground hog stayed outside because the sky was overcast and there were no sudden shadows, then spring would arrive early (half o’ winter’s gone at Yule).
Candlemas has therefore become a delicate interweaving of theology and superstition, of Christian and Pagan. It is one of the ironies of our ti
me that, whilst in the past Christians have been accused of taking Pagan beliefs and adopting them for their own purposes; the trend today is that the reverse is taking place. Witness how Christmas and Easter have virtually ceased to be Christian Festivals in any sense outside of the church. In the US, Ground Hog Day has largely superseded Candlemas in the popular imagination. But it’s not that people are reverting to pagan or ancient beliefs, the modern Ground Hog Day has virtually nothing to do with ancient mythology or religious belief either.
It is that we have lost a sense of the reality of nature, of the cycles of life and the spiritual foundations that gave meaning and depth to them. Candlemas, rightly understood, reminds us of the holiness of childbirth, the cycle of all life, and the amazing truth that the divine and the ordinary still co-exist in today’s world – as it always has.