Ceremonies for Candlemas

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Since we never weary of Robert Herrick here, I’m pleased to share two of his lesser-known poems that celebrate today: Candlemas. In the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas commemorates the presentation of Jesus in the temple. A procession with candles takes place, and traditionally folks would bring their own candles to church to be blessed. (Hence candle-mass.)

But celebrating this time of year has a much older lineage, from the Romans lighting tapers for Lupercalia to the Celts bearing torches in honor of Brighid at Imbolc. It also holds an ancient association with animals coming out of hibernation, taken as prognostications of spring. Badgers, serpents, bears, and now groundhogs have all played a part in the tableau.

Candlemas is the 40th day of Christmastide, the season of Christmas. On this day the decorations put up for Christmas—holly, mistletoe, ivy—are taken down at last; there’s a tradition in rural England of the boughs being burned in great bonfires. The last of the Yule log would be burned down and a piece saved, to light next year’s log.

Herrick was an Anglican clergyman, and his poems show just how important the signs of the natural world remained in the 17th-century church. The church would have been decorated too; it was not divorced from the seasons, or immune to the darkness that had pressed outside, now turning toward light. Rather, the light was a symbol of Christ’s light; it was only fitting to celebrate its waxing.

 From  Hesperides , London: Printed for John Williams, and Francis Eglesfield, and are to be sold at the Crown and Marygold in Saint Pauls Church-Yard, 1648. p. 337

From Hesperides, London: Printed for John Williams, and Francis Eglesfield, and are to be sold at the Crown and Marygold in Saint Pauls Church-Yard, 1648. p. 337

Ceremonies for Candlemasse Eve
          Robert Herrick (1591–1674). From Hesperides, 1648.

Down with the Rosemary and Bayes,
    Down with the Misleto;
Instead of Holly, now up-raise
    The greener box (for show.)

The Holly hitherto did sway;
    Let Box now domineere;
Until the dancing Easter-day,
    Or Easters Eve appear.

Then youthful Box, which now hath grace,
    Your houses to renew;
Grown old, surrender must his place,
    Unto the crisped Yew.

When Yew is out, then Birch comes in,
    And many Flowers beside;
Both of a fresh, and fragrant kinne
    To honour Whitsontide.

Green Rushes then, and sweetest Bents,
    With cooler Oken boughs;
Come in for comely ornaments,
    To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn do’s hold;             does
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

[Modernized version here.]

Each herb and flower and tree has its place in the cycle of the year and the home, and we need not mourn the passing of any season, but look forward to what will spring forth from the earth next. So on Candlemas Eve we take down those boughs of the season now passing, and ready ourselves for the burgeoning spring, with its lambs and snowdrops and promises of light.

And then on Candlemas Day we burn those boughs, that last bit of Christmas branch, as a symbol of purification, and readiness for the great next. (With a bit of protection from the Devil as a bonus.)

 Ibid.,  p. 337-8.

Ibid.,  p. 337-8.

The Ceremonies for Candlemasse Day
          Robert Herrick (1591–1674). From Hesperides, 1648.

Kindle the Christmas Brand and then
     Till Sunne-set, let it burne;
Which quencht, then lay it up agen,
     Till Christmas next returne.

Part must be kept wherewith to teend
     The Christmas Log next yeare;
And where 'tis safely kept, the Fiend,
     Can do no mischiefe (there.)

[Modernized version here.]

There’s a lovely sermon by Michael Sadgrove posted on the Durham Cathedral website, entitled “The Feast of Candlemas,” which begins with an extract from Herrick’s poem. Sadgrove talks about the commingling of the light and dark at this time of year, the tension between winter and spring. It’s something Herrick would have understood perfectly; the “new things succeed” as the former ones grow old, not after they’re already gone.


Lead image is Candlemas Day, by Marianne Stokes, ca. 1901. Courtesy of Tate Britain.