Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989): The Candlemas. Light and darkness,
new and old, summer and winter are dueling.
new and old, summer and winter are dueling.
Now it is the middle of the winter. The darkness of the autumn and the festivities of the Yule are past. There is more and more sunlight every day. However, the light is not yet the warming light of the spring, but a cruel light exposing the dead season in the nature; plain grey fields, black naked trees and birdless skies.
The climax of the great Yule celebration has faded after forty days, and there is nothing to wait for for a long time. The new year has begun, but new life is still sleeping in the womb of Mother Earth. What to do? Where to get strengt and joy from?
The Purification of the Goddess
The second day of February is among other things called The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin and The Meeting of the Lord (in Greek: Hypapante) with Christian terms.
It originates from the Jewish custom (in Hebrew: Pidyon HaBen, redemption of the son), where the firstborn son is taken to the temple forty days after his birth to complete the mother's purification after childbirth, and to perform the redemption of the firstborn in obedience to the law of Moses.
Because it is thought that Jesus Christ was born on Yule, then his redemption would have been the second of February. It is told that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple on this day. They met Simeon the Righteous and elderly prophetess Anna, who both prophesied the redemption of the whole world by Jesus.
However, there is no reason to believe in Christmas being Jesus's birthday, because it only is a christianized pagan celebration. Thus the second of February as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is also merely a part of Christian propaganda. However, there is no fable without a little truth in it: Here we have the first hints of the real purpose of the day, the goddess in form of Virgin Mary and purification.
The Celebration of Light
Another name for the second of February is Candlemas. I am not entirely convinced whether it originally is a Christian term, even if it is used as such. In Danish it is kyndelmisse, kærtemisse or Kjørmes Knud, in Swedish kyndelsmässodagen, in Finnish kynttilänpäivä, in Latin festum candelabrum or missa candelarum. All these names can be translated as the candle mass. In practice this was (and still is) the day when Christian priests blessed candles for use throughout the year and torchlight processions were held.
Here we have another hint of the true meaning of the day, that is, Candlemas has something to do with candles. In other words: The celebration of returning light and life.
The Return of the Goddess
The idea of the returning light and life can best be considered in terms of an ancient Greek(-Roman) myth of Kore aka Persephone (Proserpina). It is a part of the Eleusian Mysteries explaining the change of the seasons by the abduction and return of the goddess. The Eleusian ceremonies were, not suprisingly, held on the day of February second.
Persephone together again with her mother Demeter in Eleusis, admiring sacred ergot mushrooms.
In brief, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter (Ceres), or Mother Earth. She is the embodiment of the Earth's fertility. The god of the underworld, Hades (Pluto) fell in love with her, abducting her to the underworld as his captive. At the same time Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter and the earth is having an eternal drought.
This threatened the natural balance in the cosmos, and the gods decided to release Persephone back to her mother. However, Hades was not pleased; he planned an intrigue giving Persephone a pomegranate. She managed to eat six pomegranate seeds and as a result, Persephone had to remain in the underworld with Hades for for six months every year. The other six months she could stay with her mother in the world of the living.
When Persephone returns to the surface on the second of February, her mother becomes joyful, winter ends, light increases and the cycle of life and growth begins anew.
The Field Penance
So far the ancient Greece, the ancient North-Europeans called the second of the February Æcer Bót (Old English), or Akr Bod in Old Norse and Holy Penance Day in medival Norse. Æcer Bót means Field Penance, meaning that one makes penance for the field in hopes of getting a good harvest.
The penance here consisted of some flat cakes of corn, buried in the field so that the field could give them corn in return. These cakes were called placentas, representing the female organ. In Danish the cakes were not called placentas, but afterbirths (moderkager), which actually means Mother's cakes. This stands to reason, for it was Mother Earth who would get them both the cakes and the afterbirths.
The same kind of plowing ritual is described in the Indian Rig Veda, although the Mother has here become the male Lord of the Field:
1. We through the Master of the Field, even as through a friend, obtain what nourisheth our kine and steeds. In such may he be good to us. [...]
3. Sweet be the plants for us. [...] May the Field's Lord for us be full of sweetness [...]
4. Happily work our steers and men, may the plough furrow happily. Happily be the traces bound; happily may he ply the goad. [...]
7. May Indra press the furrow down, may Pūṣan guide its course aright. May she, as rich in milk, be drained for us through each succeeding year.
8. Happily let the shares turn up the plough-land, happily go the ploughers with the oxen.With meath and milk Parjanya make us happy. Grant us prosperity, Śuna [Vayu or wind] and Sīra [Pūṣan or Sun].
Rig Veda, Book 4. HYMN LVII. Ksetrapati
The Day of Goddesses
We can understand from the previous examples that the day of Candlemas is originally a holy day of Mother Earth, who in the course of time received many other names and figures. In Scandinavia there were sacrifices on this day for Freja, the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, harvest, domestic animals, (child)births and death.
The Celts and other West-Europeans had another name for the same kind of goddess: Brigid (or Brighid, Brighde, Bride, Brigantia, Brigandu, Bridget and so on, nowdays St. Brigid), who was worshipped on the second day of February: Imbolc. Brigid is the goddess of poetry, love, inspiration, art, Moon, women, childbirths, healing, light, fire, cows, wells, wisdom, perfection, intelligence, craftsmanship and warfare.
Left: John McKirdy Duncan (1866-1945): Semele [a Greek goddess who lookes like a classical Brigid here]. Right: John Bauer (1182-1918): Freya
One Celtic midwinter tradition still continues, namely Brigid's Bed. The unmarried women create a corn doll Brideog to represent Brigid on the eve of Imbolc. On the following day, the girls carry the corn doll through the village, from house to house, where she is welcomed with great honour.
In Russia the same kind of corn doll is called Kostroma or Maslenitsa. After the worship she is actually burned in a bornfire. Afterwards her ashes are spread over the fields in hopes of good harvest. I suppose this kind of corn doll originates from some very old religious practices requiring human sacrifices.
However, back to the pagan goddesses: Even Pope Innocent XII believed Candlemas was invented as an alternative to ancient Roman traditions:
Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.
William Shepard Walsh: Curiosities of Popular Customs and of rites, ceremonies, observances, and miscellaneous antiquities, 1898
The European post-medieval peasants were not too interested in the theological themes of the Christian Candlemas, nor did they remember how and why the day was celebrated before Christianity. They only knew that some things had to be done on Candlemas and that was the way it should be.
First, the Yule was completely gone. If one hadn't removed Yule decorations yet, now was the last moment to do so. However, lots of candles were burned exactly in the same way as on Yule.
This day was stock raisers' great day, because the cattle breeding began. It has been traditionally associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, soon to give birth to the spring lambs. It was also a day for grinding the whole year's flours.
There was a feast on the eve of Candlemas in the same way as on the Yule eve. The main dishes were the previously mentioned (buckwheat) pancakes, soup, cabbage and beer. Pork was eaten to prevent hunger as they also did on Yule in Scandinavia.
Peasants stood up very early on the morning of Candlemas. They would eat again and go to a field for plowing a little patch. A maid would lead a horse, while a male farm labourer would plow. They should have their gloves on for the ritual to succeed. Of course, this procedure has no pragmatical agricultural value, but it is a way for preparing the female earth, so that it can receive the fertile and lifegiving rays of the male Sun. Even the fruit trees were whipped with twigs for getting a good harvest. Both of these traditions were certainly some distant memories of the original Candlemas, the day of Field Penance, Æcer Bót.
A plowing man in a Danish 15th century painting, Elmelunde church. Link
According to an old folklore St. Peter was throwing warm stones into the water on this day, so that the ice would melt and the spring would come.
Divination, watching omens and weather prognostication for the next year were as popular as on Yule and the New Year. For example, if the midwinter day is bad, then the harvest will be great and the spring begins earlier. Old Norse proverbs say: As many days as a lark sings before the Candlemas, as many weeks it shall be silent afterwards. And another: If it blows so much on Candlemas that eighteen hags can't hold the nineteenth on the ground, then the spring is surely coming.
It was also believed that bears emerge from hibernation and wolves and serpents come out from their burrows on the day of Candlemas.They would check the weather, going back to sleep if the winter was to continue. In the United States and Canada, Candlemas evolved into Groundhog Day, when groundhogs are supposed to come out checking the weather.
As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and snow
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay
This old Scottish poem features another strong belief of the Candlemas, which was known in the western and northern Europe: A farmer should have half of the harvest back, otherwise he could have problems. Thus, one used to examine stocks and depots on the day of midwinter.
What to do?
Life feels so fragile and depressing at midwinter. Only the strongest will survive and see the new spring. However, everything is how it should be and it couldn't be otherwise. Seeds in the ground need frost, silence and darkness to be able to shoot again.
We too need this time, just as the nature does. We can prepare our life, body, mind, soul, home and environment for the new experiences by resting, cleaning and contemplating. We can make plans and new goals, because Persephone is coming back from the underworld, bringing the promise of spring with her.
By doing this, we are following the way of the nature and do the same on Candlemas: Turn own glance within, concentrate, work under the surface, hear the soft whispers of the Mother Earth and hope for a new spring. We should be inspired of the ancient goddesses and follow them in purification, wisdom, visions and healing.
One should keep in mind that there are holy days in the same way as there are holy places. The holy places are doorways to other worlds, while the seasonal holy days are like doors, which bring us closer together with the nature, the ancestors and ourselves. Therefore we shouldn't like one season or celebration more than the others. All have their right places and we should try to feel ourselves home in the present time and the present season: Feel this very moment of life, observing the ancient powers in the nature.
Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989): The Purification, which crystallizes the meaning and the feeling of the midwinter.