February 2nd is known as the Feast of the Presentation, the Purification of Mary, or just Candlemas! Today we're going to talk about 1) why it's important and what it means, and 2) how to celebrate it in your home.
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Why Do We Celebrate Candlemas?
This is the day, exactly 40 days after Christmas, where we remember the Blessed Virgin submitting herself to the ritual purification, and the day where the holy Simeon made his prophecies. From Fr. Leonard Goffine's The Church's Year (which I can't recommend highly enough):
What is this festival? It is the festival on which the Church venerates the humility and obedience of Mary who, though not subject to the law of Moses, which required purification and presentation in the temple, yet subjected herself to it. From this comes the name Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. It is also called Candlemas, because before Mass on this day the candles used in divine service are blessed and carried in procession.
But let's back up. To understand how to celebrate Candlemas, we need to note where it falls in the Church's cycle. It is in something called Epiphanytide (in the new calendar, there is no Epiphany tide, only Ordinary Time), which lasts from January 14 (the octave of Epiphany ends January 13) to the Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday (thus, the length varies each year based on where Easter falls). From Dr. Peter Kwasniewski about the season of Epiphanytide:
Epiphanytide is one of the most poetic and touching of all the seasons (or “sub-seasons,” as it were). It starts with the feast of the Epiphany itself, which, in accord with unbroken custom stretching back for centuries, is celebrated on the “Twelfth Day” after Christmas, January 6 (and not on the nearest Sunday, to suit the world’s imperious work schedule). One week later, on the octave day, January 13, the Church in her usus antiquior celebrates the Baptism of Christ. Then the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany brings us the Gospel of the wedding feast at Cana. The three great theophanies or divine manifestations honored in this season—namely, the visit of the Magi, the baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding of Cana—are given their full individual due, without haste, without unseemly compression or alternation. Indeed, there is a leisurely feel to this Epiphany season, a sense of time suspended. It is as if Holy Mother Church, like a mother watching her children grow up too fast, cannot quite resign herself to parting from the young Christ. Epiphanytide is the afterglow of the revelation of Christ to the world...
This is a season where we still focus on the Divine Childhood of Jesus, before the penitential Septuagesima season in which we prepare ourselves for Lent with voluntary mortifications (before the obligatory ones that come with Lent). So, in a sense, it has a transitional aspect: the Divine Child is growing, and the more He grows, the closer He draws to His Passion—and we, the Church, along with Him.
What makes Candlemas specifically a marked transition is that it ends the spiritual season of Christmas. Ideally, Catholics are very clearly marking this transition that the Church undergoes with the Divine Child in their homes, by taking town their Christmas decorations on the Eve of Candlemas. The following old English poem by Robert Herrick says it well:
Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
Down with the rosemary, and so Down with the bays and misletoe ; Down with the holly, ivy, all, Wherewith ye dress'd 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.
The fact that this feast should mark a transitional moment in the Church's cycle is easily seen in the nature of the feast. Now, I didn't get this from any theologians, so take from it what you will, but the transitional nature is abundantly clear to me, a simple country housewife, in the fact that the Presentation in the Temple is one of Our Lady's joyful mysteries, but the Prophecy of Simeon is the first of her seven sorrows, and the first time the sword pierces her heart. If we really celebrate Candlemas and bring the transition into our home, we will walk with Our Lady, experiencing the joy of the Incarnation and the Divine Childhood, but very soon after experiencing the sorrow of knowing that this Divine Infant was here to suffer. Consider the words of Our Lady to St. Brigid:
Redeemed souls, and my beloved children, do not pity me only for the hour in which I beheld my dear Jesus expiring before my eyes; for the sword of sorrow predicted by Simeon pierced my soul during the whole of my life... when I was warming Him in my arms, I already foresaw the bitter death that awaited Him. Consider, then, what long and bitter sorrows I must have endured.
Now that we understand the feast a little more and it's context—where do the candles fit in all of it? Again, from Fr. Leonard Goffine:
Why are the candles blessed on this day and carried in procession? In remembrance of the presentation of Jesus to His Heavenly Father on this day, when the aged Simeon called Him: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of the people of Israel (Lk. 2:32), and to remind us that, like the five wise virgins, we should go to meet Christ with the light of faith and good works.
How Do We Celebrate Candlemas?
So that is a little bit about what the feast means. Now, how do we bring this into our homes? And of course, this begins with the eve of Candlemas, and taking down the Christmas decorations.
If you cheated, and already took down your Christmas decorations, I will find you, and I will come to your house armed with poinsettias so you will have something to take down. Kidding—I get the need to take decorations down early occasionally; I did it last year so everything would be put away before my baby was born—but maybe have at least one thing, like your nativity scene, to reserve for taking down on February 1. This is such a visual marker for you and your children of where we are in the Church cycle. You can even explain to them while you do it or while they are helping you about how the celebration of Christ's Divine Childhood is over, as He is growing and getting close to His Passion, where we must accompany Him.
If you are someone who always likes to have some sort of seasonal decorations out, especially to replace your Christmas decorations (sometimes this is nice, since the house will look so bare without them!), here are a few decorating ideas:
The color of Epiphanytide is green, so you can use green ribbons or accents.
In some cultures, it is traditional to replace the creche with an image of the Divine Child Jesus sitting in a chair, to visually signify the liturgical transitioning happening. I will use an image of the Divine Child holding the Blessed Sacrament, but you could probably find something to symbolize his adult ministry, too.
If you have any snowdrop flowers blooming around your house, it is tradition to bring them in on Candlemas (they are one of the earliest blooming flowers, and have usually bloomed by then), as they are commonly referred to as "Candlemas Bells".
For actual Candlemas, especially for your Sunday dinner, your decorating theme is easy: candles everywhere! Put all of the candles you have (blessed or not) grouped together on the table or other central surfaces for a really dramatic look.
As far as the actual day goes, it is customary as we mentioned to bring candles to Mass to be blessed. If your priest for whatever reason does not do this blessing on the feast, no worries: just bring him candles to bless beforehand. Remember, they have to be at least 51% beeswax (we talk more about blessed candles in this post on building Spiritual Preparedness Kits). One particularly neat tradition is to bring a candle for each family member, with a way to delineate who they belong to. Then, throughout the year, light that person's specific candle for whenever they get sick, on their birthday, on any first sacraments or anniversaries, and on the unfortunate chance they should need Extreme Unction (morbid, but a good reminder to keep our death always before us).
Whatever candles you do decide to get blessed, they should be decorated lavishly when you get home, or at least put in a prominent place on the family altar. Ribbons and flowers should do the trick. This works especially well if your family gets just one general family candle to be blessed at Candlemas each year—you can deck it out in ribbons and place it on the family altar when you get home. It will be lit during storms, after dusk on All Saint's Day, and during Extreme Unction. We sometimes light the blessed candle on our family altar during prayers and storms, and we used it for our candlelight Christmas Eve feast.
If you want a family activity or children's craft to do today, making crockpot candles is a great thing to do (God willing we will post a tutorial on these eventually, but you should be able to Google it pretty easily). If you want to use beeswax, these would be good to do ahead of time so that they can get blessed on Candlemas. If you want to just use regular wax, it can be a day-of activity, driving home the symbolism of candles. For adults or older children, you can use Dom Gueranger's explanation of the symbolism in his Liturgical Year:
The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.
For a simpler explanation, you could use Jacobus de Voragine's explanation: just like a candle without burning is dead, so too is faith without good works. Even if you don't actually make candles, the candle itself is such a symbolic image that it would be a good idea to do some sort of candle-themed craft (a coloring page or making an image of a candle with different colored construction sheets) or at least have everyone looking at a candle while explaining some level of symbolism it possesses.
Once you get home from Mass, besides decorating your blessed candles, there are two main traditional activities I have been able to find for this feast. The first is a candlelight gathering (in the evening) around the creche for the last time with the father doing a prayer before evening prayers. If you've already put away your creche, you could use your family altar. This is a great way to say goodbye to the Christmas season! Helen McLoughlin transcribes the prayer to be said in her descriptions of this tradition in Christmas to Candlemas in a Catholic Home:
Father: Lord Jesus Christ, the true Light that enlightens every man who comes into the world, pour forth Thy blessing upon these candles; sanctify them by the light of Thy grace and mercifully grant that as candles by their visible light scatter the darkness of night, so too our hearts, burning with invisible fire, may be freed from all blindness of sin. With the eyes of our soul purified by Thy Light, may we discern those things that art pleasing to Thee and helpful to us, so that having finished the darksome journey of this life, we may come to never-fading joys through Thee, O Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. In perfect Trinity Thou livest and reignest God forever. All: Alleluia.
Another wonderful prayer for this day is from Fr. Leonard Goffine:
Heavenly Father, look down from Thy throne of mercy upon the face of Thy Anointed in whom Thou art well pleased. Behold, He is this day offered to Thee in the temple for the sins of His brethren. Let this offering please Thee, and move Thee to have compassion on us sinners. In consideration of His humility and obedience, forgive us our pride and disobedience, and grant us, that purified by His blood, we may one day, having like Simeon departed this life in peace, behold Thee as the eternal Light which shall never be extinguished in the temple of Thy glory, be presented to Thee by Mary, our beloved Mother, and love and praise Thee forever. Amen.
The second tradition that you could do separately or after the evening prayer (with a candlelight procession in between if you are in a different room) is to have your children act out the prophecy of Simeon. You would need at least a Blessed Virgin, a St. Joseph, a baby doll for the Child Jesus, and a holy Simeon. You can write a script for them using the Scriptures, have them make costumes, and really make it your family's thing! Of course, you have to have at least 3 children present (maybe you could do a party or family gathering where there are several cousins?), so it might not be possible for everyone.
As far as meals, in Mexico, the food is hot chocolate and tamales. The European custom is crepes, which are wonderful because you can make them as savory meals and sides or desserts—or both! You can find more information and recipes at this wonderful site here.
And that's Candlemas! Share your thoughts or other family traditions in the comments! If you enjoy learning about the significance of feast days, I highly recommend Fr. Goffine's book. We enjoy reading the relevant chapter on Sundays, Holy Days, and special feast days. The question and answer format makes it good for a family setting, and the depths of the answers provide wonderful catechesis for children and adults alike. Find it here: