Feasts, hope and syncretism

Today is Candlemas. Candlemas is one of those holy-days that distinguishes the women from the girls, so to speak, when it comes to knowing the Church year. It falls forty days after Christmas and marks the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the official end of the Christmas/Epiphany season. Although many people in English-speaking countries take their decorations down on or before Twelfth Night, in high churches the nativity scene doesn’t disappear until the 2nd February, when the celebrations of Jesus’ birth finally end and believers have a brief pause before turning to think about his death at Easter. The day is marked by a service where the church is lit by candles – at Norwich cathedral, where I have celebrated it in the past, this is a spectacular affair, with hundreds of flickering tealights arranged on every available surface of the architecture. In some places people still observe the tradition of bringing their domestic supply of candles to church to have them blessed on this day, as a way of ensuring they would bring spiritual as well as physical light into the home. I shall miss it very much tonight, in a year when we need light and hope more than ever.

Like almost every other feast-day in the church’s calendar, Candlemas is a syncretic (Latinized from Greek roots meaning with-mix) celebration. Although its date was fixed as forty days after Christmas (since this is when Jewish boy-babies were presented for blessing and their mothers ritually purified after childbirth), and the church fathers in the Middle East could hardly have known about Celtic culture, it still manages to fall just one day after the feast of Brigid, also known as Imbolc in the Celtic pagan calendar. Brigid (pronounced Breejh or Breed) herself is a syncretic figure, being a convenient blend of an ancient Irish goddess and a saint from the early days of Irish conversion to Christianity. The symbolism and mythology around her are fascinating and really worth reading about if you aren’t already familiar with her. (Amongst other things, she is the patron saint of abused and illegitimate children – someone who must have been called on many, many times by the victims of the Magdalene Laundries horror.)

Imbolc / Brigid’s day marks the beginning of spring in the traditional Irish calendar. It is well-timed, being roughly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and as I noticed on my walk on Saturday, the time when the snowdrops are just coming out, and some daffodils beginning to cautiously emerge. Some years the change of seasons passes a lot of people by, but I’ve noticed that in 2021, when all our lives are so altered and constrained, many friends have been posting on social media about the snowdrops, and the fact that there is still light in the sky when they get home from work. I suppose when there is so little else to mark the passage of weeks and months, we focus back in on the very basics: the sun, the earth and the growth of plants. In terms of astronomy, spring doesn’t start until the equinox around March 20th, and for the meteorologists, it’s March 1st (see more here), but intuitively, seasons are defined in a much more fuzzy-logic way, with increasing evidence around us leading us to feel that winter is coming to an end, or that summer is waning. As such, Imbolc / Brigid’s Day / Candlemas is a perfect moment to focus on the signs that the darkest times are behind us.

I took my Christmas tree down on Twelfth Night, but moved the winter woodland scene I had created on the windowsill to the dining table to keep me company and amuse me during solitary breakfasts and dinners. It’s getting cleared away today. The fairy lights however, are still up, and they’re staying up for the foreseeable future. Tonight I shall take advantage of the fact that one of the cats has ripped the net curtain that normally deters me from lighting candles on the front windowsill, and light every candle I have in the house as a symbol of hope that life is going to get brighter and better for all of us, and to remind me that whatever happens in the fast-moving, stressful world of human society, the wheel of the seasons still turns quietly and reliably. Even in a year where most of us had a ‘winter without Christmas’, we can remember that Narnia’s winter ended and ours will too.

Candlemas Quiet Day: A Feast of Light - an event from WATCH (London) -  Women and the Church

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