The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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February 2017


February 2nd is the Feast of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas

In bygone centuries, Christians said their last farewells to the Christmas season on Candlemas, 2 February. This is exactly 40 days after Christmas Day itself.

In New Testament times 40 days old was an important age for a baby boy: it was when they made their first ‘public appearance’. Mary, like all good Jewish mothers, went to the Temple with Jesus, her first male child - to ‘present him to the Lord’. At the same time, she, as a new mother, was ‘purified’. Thus we have the Festival of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

So where does the Candlemas bit come in? Jesus is described in the New Testament as the Light of the World, and early Christians developed the tradition of lighting many candles in celebration of this day. The Church also fell into the custom of blessing the year’s supply of candles for the church on this day - hence the name, Candlemas.

The story of how Candlemas began can be found in Luke 2:22-40. Simeon’s great declaration of faith and recognition of who Jesus was is of course found in the Nunc Dimittis, which is embedded in the Office of Evening Prayer in the West. But in medieval times, the Nunc Dimittis was mostly used just on this day, during the distribution of candles before the Eucharist. Only gradually did it win a place in the daily prayer life of the Church.

Superstitions were attached to Candlemas too, notably the failure to remove every final leaf of the decorations as Robert Herrick tells us in the following poem:

Ceremony for Candlemas Eve

Down with rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith you dressed the Christmas Hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there [maids, trust to me]
So many Goblins you shall see.

Ceremony for Candlemas Day
Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
till sunset let it burn;
Which quench’d, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year.
And where ‘tis safety kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

End now the white-loaf and the pie,
And let all sports with Christmas die.
Robert Herrick

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