Hold a candle

This week is an important one in the country calendar as the second day of February is Candlemas Day and is traditionally considered the midway point of winter.

Before the Reformation, on this day Christians would gather in church for mass, and the stock of candles that would be used to illuminate services in the coming months would be blessed, with the candles representing Christ, the Light of the World. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is also the day they celebrate the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – 40 days after the birth of Christ – and would be marked with a candle-lit procession. However, post-Reformation, when Catholicism was forbidden, the day was downgraded and the anointing of candles was banned. However, it made a comeback and most Catholic churches celebrate in this way today.

Candlemas also marks the old end of the festive season when decorations would be taken down, but over time the Epiphany (6th January) took over. I’ve tried to look into when this change occurred, but what I can find is a bit vague on specific timeframes, and I was in danger of letting my research lead me down a veritable rabbit hole of arguments about when it is the correct time to mark the end of Christmas. So I’ll leave further discussion on that for another day.

Going back to February 2nd, for country folk of old, the behaviour of the elements was the most important factor in their daily lives, as it determined if their crops and livestock would thrive, and thus if they would be able to put food on the table. Farmers would try to predict what was to come in the days and months ahead so that they could decide how much food they would need to store for themselves and their livestock. Would it be mild and sunny, or freezing and snowy? Their decision would be dependent on whether they had made the right judgement call for the previous half of the season and had managed their stocks correctly, leaving them with the right quantity to get them through the next half of winter. If they got it wrong, it could lead to genuine hunger and starvation.

As a result, the traditions and beliefs around weather were legion, and 2nd February held extra significance because they believed that the state of the weather on that day was an indicator of the future. In my dad’s column from 6th February 1982, he mentions the following rhyme: ‘A farmer should, on Candlemas Day, have half his corn and half his hay’ meaning that if you did not still have half your feed stocks left, then you could be in trouble as there was plenty yet that winter could throw at you, even if it was mild on Candlemas Day.

But possibly the most well-known saying around the day goes like this: ‘If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter won’t come again.’

As well as representing Jesus Christ, for centuries candles had held much meaning in the domestic setting. Children’s author Alison Uttley, famous for her Little Grey Rabbit series of books, wrote about growing up in the 1890s:

“As was natural in a candle-lit house, we had an intimate feeling for those soft yellow flames and the white candle. A spark flying from the flame meant a letter. A brightly glowing tip to the wick was a sweetheart in the candle. A tiny shred from the wick, falling into the cup of hot wax, was called a thief. A curl of wax rippling down the side of the candle was a winding-sheet.”

The ‘winding sheet’ referenced the particular shape made by layers of the wax melting down the side of a candle which was supposed to look like the death shroud in which corpses were wrapped. If it happened to be pointing at you when it was formed, then your days would be numbered. Similarly, if the melting wax formed a loop, this was known as the ‘coffin handle’, and if it was facing in your direction, then death was heading your way. Leaving a lit candle in an empty room would also invite death into the household.

I wonder if you’ll spot a winding sheet next time you light a candle?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd  February 2022

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