The term Candlemas (or Candelaia) derives from the late Latin “candelorum” or “candelaram” namely the blessing of candles and it indicates a holiday in astronomical time, coinciding with half winter in the rural cycle, when we approach the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The most famous popular saying about it states: “When we are at Candlemas, we are out of winter, but if it rains or the wind is blowing, we are still within winter” suggesting that if the day of Candlemas does not have good weather, you still have to wait several weeks before the end of the winter and beginning of spring. This is a moment of transition between winter / dark / end and spring / light / Birth: the passage is celebrated through the purification and preparation for the new season.
For the Catholic Church, Candlemas is the Feast of the Purification of Mary, celebrated by the Church and by the faithful on February 2 simultaneously with the presentation of Jesus in the temple which could not take place before 40 days had passed, which is the time required by the Jewish law for the purification of one who has recently given birth to a male.
The first account of the Candlemas in the Holy Land is by Eteria that describes it as a major public holiday. Later, from Jerusalem, the festivities spread throughout the East and particularly to Byzantium. With the Emperor Justinian I it became a public holiday and took the name of Ypapanté (= meeting of the Lord). The origins of Candlemas, however, have distant roots in time.
From Rome, Italy, we descend on Lupercalia which celebrated in the Ides of February, the last month of the year for the Romans, when they used to purify themselves before the advent of the new year to propitiate fertility. In this celebration, dedicated to Fauno Lupercus, two boys of a patrician family were conducted into a cave on the Palatine, consecrated to God, in which priests, having sacrificed goats, mark their forehead with a knife stained with the blood of the animals. The blood was then dried with white wet wool in milk, and then the two couples had to smile. They were dressed in skins of sacrificed animals; and the same skins were then cut into strips which were then used as whips. So dressed and whips in hand, the couple had to run around the base of the Palatine hitting anyone they might encounter, particularly women who voluntarily offered to be purified and whipped to obtain fertility. Another moment of the festival was the ‘februatio’, the purification of the city, where women ran through the streets with lit candles and torches, a symbol of light.
The use of lit torches and candles during the religious procession had two functions: the first, of a spiritual nature, showed the victory of light over darkness, the social presentation of the Divine on earth, and the other of a practical nature, resulted from the need to have visibility in travelling night in the cities where the celebrations took place. The blessing of candles, then as now, is a significant moment in the great procession called Cerorum luminibus coruscans (or “shining through candles and lights”), and it is able to generate in the hearts of the participants a strong sense of communion with the mother of Jesus. Today, the solemn offer of candles to the Pope is done by many Italian cities, as in Trapani, where popular representations recall the purification of Mary, and people bring candles, flashlights and torches to their windows, as it used to happen in Naples. The blessed candles are then kept at home by the faithful and are lit to appease the wrath of God, during violent storms, on waiting for an absent person who does not return or is kept away in serious danger, when attending to a moribund, or anytime you feel the need to invoke divine help.
The character that of a Marian feast was introduced by Pope Sergio. But it will be the Eastern mysticism that sings more profusely in its liturgy about the Virgin’s gesture especially in the antiphonal “, oh Zion, the wedding room, receive Christ your Lord…” sang in response to the first reading of the office readings. This mystical intuition is made possible by following these steps: Christmas is considered the “husband” (antiphon to the Magnificat Vespers first and second readings at antiphon) as the sun is rising on the horizon; and the Church is considered as a bride adorned, its joys are the wedding feast of Christ with the Church. The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, though celebrated for a time “during the year,” is the final point of the Christmas season. The same antiphon, mentioned above, places Mary in the correct position by singing: “… (Oh Zion) hail Mary, gate of heaven, because she holds on her arms, the king of glory, the new light. The Virgin recoils, presenting the Son, born before the first-born star of the morning. Simeon keeps him in the arms, and announces to the people that he is the Lord of life and death, the Saviour of the world “. Towards the eleventh century comes to revelationem antiphon Lumen Gentium that characterizes faith and prayer of the Church in this circumstance, and the song of podsejani Simeon Nunc dimittis.
For this reason the Vatican II Council invites us to understand the intimate nature of these festivities: “The union of the Mother and the Son in redemption occurs upon virginal conception of Christ lasting until his death. And when presented to the temple by offering the gift of the poor, Simeon was heard saying that the son would become a sign of contradiction and that a sword would pierce the soul of the mother, because they revealed the thoughts of many hearts “(LG 57).
Candlemas in some places is called “Day of the bear”. In this particular day, the bear is emerges from hibernation and out of his burrow to see weather and assess whether or not he should put the nose out. A proverb from Piedmont says that if the bear has its dry bed (which would indicate a good weather for that day) for forty days he no longer exits. Another proverb similar to the first, but in this case Southern, argues that if the 2 February the weather is not good, the bear has a chance to stay in winter continues.
The bear was also the main character of some rural rites of February, placed in the rural cycle: at the end of a simulated hunt, the bear is caught and brought inside the country where it is the object of jokes and games. The epilogue can vary either with its release or an escape and return to nature. The character of the bears is played by actors in disguise who should not be recognized until the end of the ritual show.
At Urbiano they celebrate the “feast of the bear”: a few days before the feast, hunters with the face blackened, went in search of bears, (played by a man in costume) who were invariably found the eve of the evening. Hunters, “bear”, and a tamer visited the public houses and inns with the pretext to scare people (and girls), left to become transgressivelly drunk. The day after, the bear appeares in the country and, after the tour of the village, dances with the most beautiful girl before disappearing only to be transformed in a man.
This festival occurs not only in Piedmont and areas in the Alps, but also in other regions (and nations) and, at distant times bears in the party were true animals, led around by a mountaineer who took the bear dancing in the squares of villages around the country. Then he used to disappear. In some countries, to maintain tradition, the bear was then replaced by a masked person that specifically performed the same pantomime.
At Putignano, in Puglia, bear impersonators toured the streets of the country, stopping in the squares: there, with the sound of drums, they danced the tarantella, among those present arranged in a circle. Sometimes, depending on the weather, the bear wouls mimic the act of building his refuge (u pagghiar ‘).
These rites reprised an ancient tradition that celebrated the festival of the return of light for the summer, with the defeat of the forces of darkness and cold. By performing these rituals the symbolism of bears is revealed (they go into a winter hibernation and awaken back in spring), interpreting a primitive force of nature. The bear can also be understood as representing “wild man”. In both representations there is still represent the binomial nature – man.
The number “Forty” in the Bible
The day of Candlemas is connected with the number 40, a number that represents the purification. The Book of Genesis, for instance, tells us that the deluge lasted forty days and forty nights (7.12), and, according to Matthew, chapter 4.2, Jesus’ was fasting in the desert for forty days and forty nights. On the other hand, St. Paul in his writings to the Christians in Corinth, he recalls when he received 40 lashes by the Jews. (2Cor. 11.26)
In the Bible, the number 40, with its precise religious meaning is used many times: Abraham implores to God to save Sodom if there he would find at least 40 righteous people (but had come down to less than ten in the end), and when saved from Esau he had offer 40 cows in sacrifice. In Egypt, Joseph took 40 days to embalm the body of his father, and left Egypt, Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, and when the tabernacle was built it took 40 silver bases to stand on. The explorers of the land of Canaan arriving to the Promised Land: it took them 40 days, but in return they had 40 years of punishment. Judge Abdon had 40 children, and the philistine persevered for 40 days, according to Samuel (1 Sam. 17.14).
Even the great prophet Elijah remained on Mount Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights and Jonah preached repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh for 40 days. Therefore really lent 40 days (40 nights) of true inner penance, fasting, is not just a physical stance but spiritual experience.