Candlemas was always about two thing before it was about the groundhog: candles and the weather.
For many Catholics, Candlemas was also about putting away the Christmas decorations. (If you haven’t by now, perhaps you should consider it.)
Groundhog Day started out as a Roman festival and then morphed into a Christian holiday before it turned into an homage to a woodchuck.
The ancient Romans dedicated a festival of light to the divinities of the underworld in early February. According to myth, the goddess Proserpina was kidnapped by Hades. Ceres, her mother, went looking for her in the underworld with a lighted torch. Proserpina brought springtime when she was restored to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, fertility, grain crops and motherhood.
The early Christian church couldn’t destroy old ties and associations, and so it gave Candlemas a new meaning. The church modified a procession in memory of Ceres into a festival in honor of the Virgin mother. Candlemas marks the 40th day after Christmas, when Mary went to the temple at Jerusalem to be purified and to present her son to God.
Franco-Americans in New England celebrated a special mass on Candlemas or the following Sunday. They lit candles and held them during parts of the service, then brought them home. They believed the lit candles protected the home during storms, warded off evil and comforted the sick.
On Candlemas night, Franco-Americans often had pancake parties, believed to bring good luck.
Other Protestants, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, blessed the candles that would be used in religious ceremonies for the rest of the year. Churches stopped using candles at vespers, which they had done during the winter. That gave rise to the old saying,
On Candlemas Day,
Throw candles away.
Candlemas was also a day to eat beans, probably a modification of the pagan custom. The Romans believed beans were sacred to the dead and invoked their presence.
The Puritans, of course, disdained Candlemas Day, which they correctly viewed as a pagan tradition.
Writing in The Standard in 1901, Sophie Bronson Titterington described Candlemas as ‘the old time tradition.’
“It is a day of religious observance,” she wrote, “but more especially a day remarkable from unknown times for its significance in weather prognostications.”
Those predictions heralded Punxsatawny Phil, whose shadow on a sunny day foretells six more weeks of winter:
As far as the sun shines in on Candlemas Day
So far will the snow blow in by the first of May.
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will take another flight;
If Candlemas Day be foul and rain,
Winter is gone and won’t come again.
New Englanders who lived in old houses used to watch the cracks and crevices in their walls on February 2. They made a mark where the farthest sun ray penetrated, believing that was how far the snow would drift in before May 1.
Weather prognostication extended to the sea:
When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day,
There it will stick till the first of May.
Another saying was viewed as binding by early New Englanders:
The farmer should have on Candlemas Day,
Half his wood and half his hay.
Titterington was writing during the Colonial Revival Movement, which she called ‘the modern craze for reviving old fashions.’ She described a fad for Candlemas suppers, ‘where the only lights are candles in prodigal profusion.’ Guests were given small, round cakes with lighted candles. The guest whose candle burned the longest would be the luckiest for the year. The parties also included an indoor procession with people bearing lighted candles from room to room to drive away the lurking shadows of evil.
This story was updated in 2021. With thanks to The New England Kitchen: A Monthly Journal of Domestic Science, Volume 2. Image: Blessing of the candles by Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55800233.