Saturday, 2 February 2013


Giovanni Bellini, 1460 - 1464, Galleria Querini Stampalia in Venedig
Giovanni Bellini, 1460-1464, Galleria Querini Stampalia, Venice

February has been the month of purification since Roman times;  Februalia was the Roman festival of ritual purification . The festival, which is basically one of Spring washing or cleaning (associated also with the raininess of this time of year) is old, and possibly of Sabine origin. According to Ovid, Februare as a Latin word which refers to means of purification derives from an earlier Etruscan word referring to purging.
The Roman month Februarius ("of Februa," whence the English February) is named for the Februa/Februatio festival.  (Excerpts from Wikipedia)

February was also the month when the housewife traditionally started her ‘spring cleaning’ of home and hearth;  the days lengthened and showed up dust and grime which remained invisible during the dark months. German folk wisdom  claims that: come New Year the day has grown by a rooster’s step, at Three Kings (Epiphany) by the leap of a deer and a whole hour by Candlemas. 

On the 2nd of February the Catholic church celebrates ‘St Mary’s Feast of the Candles’, officially the Feast of the Purification and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  The aged Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’; on this day, therefore, lights and candles are blessed at a candle lit service. There are records which show that the custom of blessing the year’s supply of candles was already in existence in the tenth century in the area of the Lower Rhine. A normally dark church was transformed into a sea of light, surely an awe inspiring sight for the peasants of the time. After the service the candles were carried around the church in procession; great care was taken that the flames remained alight, because that meant the year would be a good one for bees.

Sacred and household candles were blessed alike; the beekeeper took his burning candle to his hives to thank the bees for providing him with the necessary wax and ask them for a good harvest of honey for the coming year;  the husband, as head of the household, took his candle and dribbled three drops, in the shape of a triangle, into the clothes of each member of the household, making the sign of the cross. This was to protect them from all evil, particularly witchcraft and magic. Another custom was for the father to dribble three drops on to a piece of bread, which he would give his children to eat and show to the animals in the stables.

The candlemas candle continued to be of great importance throughout the year; it was lit whenever danger to life and limb, the home, animals and property threatened. It was lit at the birth of new life and at the end of a life, both of which were natural events happening within the family home in those days.

Candlemas, like many saints' days, also provided the countryman with weather adages; farmers and shepherds preferred the day to be cold and rough:

If Candlemas Day bring snow and rain
Winter is gone, and won’t come again.
If Candlemas Day be clear and bright
Winter will have another flight.

Around 1700 a shepherd on the Lower Rhine was said to watch the weather on Candlemas morning with particular attention;  a proverb said that he’d rather see the wolf than the sun in the sheep pen. 

At least as early as the 1840s, German immigrants in Pennsylvania had introduced the tradition of weather prediction that was associated with the hedgehog (der Igel) in their homeland. Since there were no hedgehogs in the region, the Pennsylvania Germans adopted the indigenous woodchuck (a name derived from an Indian word), aka the groundhog. The town of Punxsutawney, some 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, has played up the custom over the years and managed to turn itself into the center of the annual Groundhog Day, particularly after the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Each year, people gather to see if a groundhog dubbed "Punxsutawney Phil" will see his shadow after he emerges from his burrow. If he does, the tradition says there will be six more weeks of winter. (Phil has a rather dismal 39% rate of accuracy for his predictions.)


  1. Hallo Friko,
    ich habe zwar nur überflogen, aber wie Du schreibst, das ist ungefähr mein eigenes Anspruchsniveau: über ein bestimmtes Thema - hier Februar - eine Tiefenbohrung zu machen und in die Details zu gehen. Sehr informativ und ohne dass ich alles verstanden habe, sehr schön aufbereitet. Schön finde ich auch, dass Du den Post mit einem - sehr alten - Gemälde beginnst. Über meinen Post über die Kölner Malerschule bin auch auf Malerei ab 1400 gestoßen. Das Gemälde von Bellini fällt genau in diese Epoche hinein und es gefällt mir sehr.

    Schönen Abend

  2. interesting bit of history friko...i rather like the candle ceremonies and services...the darkness and the light...and watching the light spread on to another...pushing back the shadows...the dribbling of the wax on each member of the house...very cool...

  3. Well, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this morning, so it will be an early spring. Or, if he has a 39% accuracy rate, we can assume it will be a LATE spring, probably. Good information about Candlemas. It's the day that falls right between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

  4. Oh, I had forgotten this day of candlemas
    thanks for the reminder
    and as for the groundhog

  5. Hi Friko,
    Another example of how Christians make a neolithic pagan tradition their own. Today marks "Imbolc" for our Pagan friends. Candles are lit, midwinter is celebrated and the end of darkness, the season of fertility begins. A very significant day indeed. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Excellent post, Friko. I had forgotten about Candlemas. And as my wife delighted in telling her first graders, there will be 6 more weeks of winter regardless of what the groundhog sees. Spring begins March 20 this year, just 6 weeks and 4 days from today. Jim

  7. Well, Phil did not see his shadow. But, having once lived in PA, I can tell you he is a fraud! Also, since I still can't see the grime in my house, I won't start cleaning for several more months. I DO like to burn candles though.

  8. I won't be doing any spring cleaning until spring is really here - this is still very much a time for staying warm and cosy on the dark evenings. The days are noticeably longer now, but any cobwebs and dust are still in shadow.

  9. I had never heard of Candlemas, even while growing up in France – it could have been more an English or German custom.
    Here though I have heard of Groundhog Day – mostly because it is my husband’s birthday today. In Georgia we also have a famous groundhog – his name is General Beauregard Lee. This morning 600 people waited for him – he came out in the sunshine, so he saw his shadow – meaning a long winter. He is supposed to be 94% correct and much better than the groundhog up north, Punxsutawney Phil. Phil predicted the reverse from General Lee as Phil did not see his shadow this morning – so now we just have to wait and see.

  10. It bothered me that I had never heard of Candlemas, so I went to Google translate to see what it is in French. Well, it is “la Chandeleur.”
    Of course I have heard of it – it is the fete des chandelles or above all, it is “crepe day.” You are supposed to place a coin (in gold if you have one) in your right hand and flip the crepe while you hold the coin and if you are successful, meaning the crepe falls back in the frying pan, it means you’ll have money all year. We always did it at home. It was so much fun! But I had never heard it was some religious custom. We knew it was a pagan custom, I think it was called La Festa Candelarum. I am not surprised the Church took it over as they took over so many other pagan holidays, but for us in France it was always crepe day! and it still is.

  11. Friko, early this morning, I also did a post that referenced Groundhog Day, and it's so enlightening to see your post this evening and to read the prior comments.

    It seems to indicate that having a bunch of dark, cold days every year has been going on for a very long time, and that many cultures have found ways to encourage folks to press on, feeling that this encouragement might be handy at the beginning of February.

    Weather note (please forgive me, Friko) this evening we have a light snowfall in NYC.


  12. I had no idea about the origins of the groundhog tradition here!

  13. Interesting ! I live in a catholic country most of the people don't even know what a "protestant" is, but have never seen a candlemas celebration !

  14. Hi Friko - you always do wonderful posts on these societal traditions - the turning of the early customs, to pagan rituals to Christian feasts - I love reading them .. you offer so much information ... but I was delighted to see Vagabonde's comment re General Beauregard Lee ... as I'd heard about him only yesterday ... and I was slightly bemused - but as it came from Lenny (13) .. I accepted his thoroughly enjoyable email tale - now I've learnt some more ...

    Interesting to read the French interpretation too .... this is so informative ...

    Let's hope we have a very British year - following those seasons and months we expect - that would make 2013 special ... no disasters, not too much rain, lovely crops, beautiful flowers and gardens, and plenty of sun in between the life-giving showers ..

    Six weeks to go .. and the extra hour of light does make such a difference - happy Sunday and week ahead ... Hilary

  15. This is great...I like the idea of the candle lighting for different occasions!

  16. Oh rats, Friko! Yesterday was the sunniest day we've had for months. Winter here we come again.....

    The Anglican Church also celebrates Candlemas in many places and it's one of my favourite festivals. I love all the candles and the symbolic turning away from Christmas and towards Lent and Easter.

    DH will be away next weekend, so I'll be spring-cleaning too :-)

  17. Fascinating! But I felt sorry for the housewives doing their spring cleaning in February. I don't do my 'big' spring clean until the weather allows me to have all the doors and windows open. I'd freeze if I did that today!

  18. Yes, the year is turning...salt cod in the shops for Ash Wednesday already...

  19. This was a very informative and delightful post, Friko. I leave it knowing a great deal more about Candlemas. I was completely surprised to hear the connection with Groundhog Day and my neighbor to the northwest, Punxsutawney Phil.

  20. Tremendously interesting, Friko. I learnt quite a lot.

  21. facinating really, how many customs have ancient origins, no matter how many times they have been re-dedicated, they still stem from our pre-history.

  22. We have groundhogs sprouting up all over the place here in the States. Have you heard of Staten Island Chuck? Both he and Phil predicted an early spring. I hope they are correct. Love your post today. I groove on this old stuff.

    Feb 2 --Known as Imbolc by Wiccans. Old names include Imbolc (the belly of Mother Earth) or Oimelc = milk of ewes for lambing season. One of the points on the old agricultural calendar. D~

  23. Yes the Pagans celebrated the festival of light and the Christians took it over.

  24. So interesting and most I do not know about.
    Do know
    I am starting my Spring cleaning this month
    as it takes me a whole month and my son is
    returning from Thailand next month for a much
    anticipated visit :)

  25. I had no idea about this history, even though I grew up in Pennsylvania where groundhogs ran around in the fields (and, I am told, some of my ancestors were German).

  26. The Weather Channel covers Phil every year. I hope he's right this time, because he predicts an early spring.

  27. I was just wondering when that groundhog thingy started. What I don't get is how you only get the choice of two more weeks of winter or six weeks. Six weeks still puts you in the second week of March and there's always plenty of winter after that. An Oregon groundhog would have to pop up with an umbrella and predict whether it will quit raining by Rose Festival Day or not. That's the middle of June.

  28. A very informative and interesting post about Candlemas. We who live with light at the turn of a switch cannot understand the long months of darkness of ancient times. Thanks for the reminder of the value of light.

  29. I like American author Hal Borland's description of Groundhog Day - "This is that secular occasion known as Groundhog Day, when a remarkable combination of guesswork superstition, tradition and error is taken for divination."

    I remember Candlemas from my days as a practicing Catholic. Now I like Pagan ideas better.

  30. It's interesting to see the evolution of tradition over the centuries like this.

  31. I wish I could begin my spring cleaning in February. Unfortunately, it is still the dead of winter here. ;)
    A very fascinating post! Thank you!

    Also, thank you for your comment on my blog. The last sentence made me laugh out loud!

  32. Thanks for this great write-up on the traditions of old and how they have changed over the years.

  33. I wonder how much of that you believe Friko? Its interesting how many superstitions were around, even in our parent's time. My mother was superstitious about black cats crossing the road, not walking under ladders, Friday 13th and many others I am sure that I have now forgotten. I don't believe any of them - Dave

  34. Frico. it's interesting to learn about old traditions. I know about Groundhog Phil but do not believe that it can correctly predict the weather!

  35. Can't imagine why they chose February as a spring month! It's our coldest one over here.

  36. Thank you for this lesson in candles, Friko. My life has been a bit of a muddle with family concerns that had me forgetting about Candlemas, however, it must have been on my mind. Saturday, the 2nd, was the first night in a week I was home for dinner. My poor husband had been relegated to leftovers all week, me to hospital cafeteria fare, and I relished the time to make a good meal for us both. As dinner simmered, I set about lighting every candle I could find, enjoying the comfort and glow. Our inner clocks seem to kick in, don't they?

    I will admit to watching Groundhog Day, however. I needed to laugh! Thanks for this gift of candles.

  37. Candlesnap is still alive and well here, Friko.

    I found out recently that coats and hats and shoes were oiled with the candlewaxings.

    This still takes place in more outlying, fishing regions.


  38. Oh, we will get just as much winter, but I do make a good bellini :-).

  39. Thanks to the Germans, we also have the Christmas Tree. :) lovely post.

  40. Friko, how wonderful to discover your blog and to see how similar our interests are. Happy Candlemas to you, and thank you for this interesting background, which contains information I hadn't heard of.
    Here in New Zealand on February 2 we celebrated the opposite seasonal festival of Lammas. I'm a little late posting about the celebration I did with my group, but have just done so.

  41. I have little -- no, zero -- knowledge of Candlemas. It sounds just lovely. Thank you for sharing this with us. I love learning new things from you.


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