On Candlemas Day, February 2, followers of Jesus celebrate his Presentation at the Temple and the Virgin Mary being purified, with many of the faithful bringing candles to their churches to be blessed. Thereafter (in Poland, for example, where they’re lit and placed in windows to ward off storms), the candles represent Jesus and the day of his induction into Judaism, and they go toward explaining the name of the holy day, Candlemas.
History of Candlemas Day
Among the many holy feasts in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Presentation, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, on Candlemas Day is one of the oldest, celebrated since the 4th century A.D. in Jerusalem. A woman of that time, Egeria, who’s credited with writing a detailed account of an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land, described the Candlemas celebrations there:
“…all things are done in order with great joy, just as at Easter. All the priests preach, and also the bishop, always treating of that passage of the Gospel where, on the fortieth day, Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple, and Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Famuhel, saw Him, and of the words which they said when they saw the Lord, and of the offerings which the parents presented.”
In the 6th century, around 541 A.D., responding to a horrible plague that had struck Constantinople, Emperor Justinian I ordered huge prayer processions throughout the city during the Feast of the Presentation to ask God for deliverance from the evil of the disease. At this time, the tradition of holding blessed candles in reverence had long been in place, and after the plague passed, the regular celebration of Candlemas spread throughout the Roman Empire.
There are as many additional traditions and various guidelines for the observance of Candlemas as there are different sects and denominations of Christianity itself. Even instances of historical importance are sometimes contested and argued. At the base of it, a person of faith can turn to the relevant Bible verse, Luke 2:22-24. That passage describes how Mary and Jesus follow the rule in Leviticus that says an infant boy should be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, and that, thirty-three days later, the mother is considered “clean” and should burn an offering at the boy’s presentation at the temple on that 40th day.
Today, you might think the word “Candlemas” sounds antiquated, a reference to something like a scene from “Oliver Twist” or an old black-and-white movie. But to faithful Christians even now, Candlemas is a solemn and worshipful time, a time to try to be “a light in the world.”
Candlemas Day timeline
A Candlemas tradition in Scotland dictates that on this day, instead of learning lessons, schoolchildren drink punch, eat biscuits (cookies), and make small monetary gifts to the headmaster, usually a sixpence or a schilling.
An Austrian “farmer’s almanac” publishes one of the first examples of the conflation of Candlemas and Groundhog Day, where good weather (counterintuitively) predicts a longer winter.
Candlemas pageants are held throughout the avenues and lanes of Aberdeen, Scotland.
In the Canary Islands, Spanish conquistador Alonso Fernández de Lugo celebrates the first Candlemas dedicated solely to the Virgin Mary.
Candlemas Day FAQs
Is Candlemas the end of Christmas?
Although for most of us Christmas ends when we take our decorations down and have to go back to work. Candlemas, which comes 40 days after Christmas, is officially the end of Christmas.
Why are candles blessed at Candlemas?
The blessed candles serve as a symbol of Jesus Christ, representing his day of induction into Judaism.
What do people eat on Candlemas?
We hope you’re hungry. Candlemas is a chance for you to tuck into crepes, pancakes, cakes, and all grain-based foods.
HOW TO OBSERVE CANDLEMAS DAY
Light a blessed candle
Religious and non-religious alike can follow Jesus' example in being a "light in the world." You can light a candle for goodwill, charity, or unselfishness, and be a part of the solution, for Candlemas and beyond.
Go to church
Even if you're not religious, you might learn something new by attending a mass celebrating the Feast of the Presentation. We're all better off if we learn more about each other's passions, including our respective religions.
Learn the history of the day
Candlemas Day has a rich and fascinating history throughout the world. Learn why it's such an important day within the Church and why it continues to be commemorated.
FIVE CANDLEMAS CELEBRATIONS AROUND THE WORLD
France and Belgium
Candlemas Day is celebrated with a specific method of preparing crepes.
Candlemas Day is celebrated with tamales.
Bonfires and singing mark the end of Candlemas Day.
Children roam the streets singing and hoping to receive a reward of candy or coins.
The fortnight-long period of Candlemas singing, dancing, and feasting comprises a festival that’s in South America’s top three, with Rio’s “Carnival” and Bolivia’s “Carnaval de Oruro.”
WHY CANDLEMAS DAY IS IMPORTANT
It’s one of the most historic Christian commemorations
It was first celebrated in the 4th century A.D. when the earliest sermons on the Feast were given in Jerusalem. It's a longstanding tradition!
It celebrates the “miracle of the virgin birth”
The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is seen as confirmation of the miracle of the virgin birth, a key tenet of Christianity. It is the impetus for Mary becoming a key figure within the Catholic Church and celebrates purity.
Celebrations feature local food and culture
The Feast of the Presentation is celebrated throughout the world. In the city of Puno, Peru, for instance, the festival includes a "costume dance" featuring 20,000 dancers and 5,000 musicians.
Candlemas Day dates