On 2 February, the Christian Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but for at least a thousand years it’s been called ‘Candlemas’.
Behind the Jewish rite described in the Bible lies the Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after giving birth and therefore were not allowed to enter the Temple (see Leviticus 12:2–8). After forty days of ritual purification (sixty if the child was a girl), women were brought to the Temple or Synagogue to be purified. Only after this ceremony could a woman re‐enter a Jewish religious service. 2 February therefore commemorates the Mary re‐entering Jewish religious life after giving birth to Jesus.
Incidentally, Luke’s account of Mary’s sacrifice at the Temple (Luke 2:24) shows just how poor the Holy Family were: they offered birds rather than the usual lamb, and only poorer families were allowed by Leviticus 12:8 to offer a smaller sacrifice.
Candlemas also marks the ritual presentation of the baby Jesus to God in the Jerusalem Temple. Luke in his Gospel says that Jesus was met by an old man, Simeon, and an even older woman, Anna. They both recognised in the baby Jesus the long-promised Messiah. Simeon then held the baby Jesus and gave a blessing in the form of a song that we today call the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Taking their lead from Simeon’s prayer, Christians from about the fourth century onwards have celebrated the festival with light—for example, in the past, the Church’s candles for the year were blessed on this day, so 2 February became literally ‘the Candle mass.’ By the middle of the fifth century, candles were lit in people’s homes on this day to symbolise that Jesus Christ was the light of the world. They also took a year’s supply of candles to the Church to be blessed during the Candlemas services.
2 February is also one of the great cross‐quarter days which make up the wheel of the year as it falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In many traditions it is considered the beginning of spring as the sky becomes lighter.