According to Jacobus de Voragine, Candlemas (2nd February) derives from two ancient Roman feasts which were both celebrated at the calends of February – one honoured Februa the mother of Mars, the Roman god of war, and the other honouring Februus – one of the gods of the underworld. Either way, both feasts involved lighting the world with candles and lanterns. So we are at the stormy beginning of a new year (for the medievals the year will begin on 25th March – the annunciation of Our Lady – as it did with the Romans and the Spring equinox - preserved today in the beginning of our tax year in the UK...). Finally, after three months of waiting, we in the Northern hemisphere are stepping out of the darkness into the fragile hope of a new year.
Traditionally the feast is associated with two gentle creatures: the turtledove and the snowdrop. The former is in reference to the creature specified for sacrifice for the purification of a mother 40 days after childbirth according to the Book of Leviticus. De Voragine, again, is at pains to stress the gentleness, meekness and divinity of the turtle-dove as opposed to the pigeon – ‘a lascivious bird’ – perhaps a cousin of those gulls and crows that attacked Pope Francis’s doves last weekend?
Sadly our population of turtle doves has declined rapidly in recent years (I picture one here). I can remember them as a child sitting in meadows near our house, purring away with that strange song that sounds more like a cat than a bird. Apparently they are delicious and are regularly hunted on their migration across Europe to the UK. John of the Cross speaks beautifully about them at the end of the ‘Spiritual Canticle’, for him, they presage the end of winter and ‘the time of changes’ and speak of the warm months to come. And what a winter it has been! No snow and ice as yet but such storms! I got back from India to witness my greenhouse raised from the ground by a mini-tornado that hit South London. Fortunately I had moved my lemon tree into the house for the duration but my cactus collection is now looking a little sorry for itself.
George Mackay Brown, the great Orkney Catholic poet, also described this fragile and gentle moment of the year well, using that traditional Candlemas symbol, the snowdrop. Here are two extracts from his diaries:
‘So this is a good feeling to know that we are in the last week of winter. February, I always think, brings winter to a close. But I expect there will be a few wintry days yet...
January, and even more February, sees this swift rising of the fountains of light. The miracle of renewal is happening so quickly before our very eyes... Spring !’ (2.3.95)
‘So we pray for the ferocious tyrant of January to pass away, and for his gentler daughter February to assume her reign. See, she comes, snowdrops and crocuses spilling from her fingers...’ (1.2.96)
Thomas Merton too (see earlier post) also sensed this gentle tilt of the seasons six weeks after the Solstice and described it in his own memorable way:
‘Today was the prophetic day, the first of the real shining spring: not that there was not warm weather last week, not that there will not be cold weather again. But this was the day of the year when spring became truly credible...
With the new, comes also memory: as if that which was once so fresh in the past (days of discovery, when I was 19 or 20) were very close again, and as if one were beginning to live again from the beginning: one must experience spring like that. A whole new chance! A complete renewal!’ (17.2.66)
So, on this blessed Candlemas day, I wish you all happiness for the renewal of the year as the ‘fountains of light’ return... and I pray we may have some more clement weather in the weeks to come!