Italy has a rich calendar of holidays and festivals
but one celebration that is relatively unknown today is the religious feast of
Candelora on February 2, when the Catholic church celebrates the Presentazione
del Signore (Presentation of Our Lord). Formerly called the Feast of the
Purification of the Virgin Mary, it is now popularly called the feast of
Candelora: on this day in Roman Catholic churches, all the candles to be used
in the church throughout the year are consecrated as the symbol of Jesus
Christ, called the ‘light of the world’ and a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles.’
This feast was originally called the Purification of the Virgin Mary,
reflecting the custom that, as a Jewish woman, Jesus’ mother would have
followed. In the Jewish tradition, women were considered impure for the 40 days
after the delivery of a male child and were not allowed to worship in the
temple; after the 40 days had passed, the women were brought to the temple to
be purified. Feburary 2 is, in fact, 40 days after December 25, the day the
Church marks the birth of Jesus. This traditional Christian festival also marks
the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, a holiday was observed by
Christians in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century AD. By the middle of the
fifth century, the celebration included lighting candles to symbolize Jesus
Christ as the light, the truth and the way. The ritual of blessing of the
candles became common practice around the eleventh century.
For this occasion,
the priest, wearing a purple-coloured stole and cope, stands at the epistle
side of the altar, blesses the candles, which should be of beeswax. He then
sprinkles the candles with holy water and passes incenses around them, and
distributes them to the clergy and laity. The cere-mony closes with a
procession of all the participants, all carrying lighted candles, to represent
the entry of the infant Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple of Jerusalem.
proverbs, especially regarding the weather, are associated with this day. One
of the most popular sayings is, Per la Santa Candelora se nevica o se plora,
dell’inverno siamo fora, ma se è sole o solicello, siamo sempre a mezzo inverno
(‘For the Holy Candelora, it it snows or if it rains, we are through with
winter, but if there is sunshine or even just a little sun, we are still in the
middle of winter’). In English-speaking countries, where the feast of Candelora
is known as Candlemas Day (or Candle Mass), the saying is similar to the
Italian: If Candlemas day be sunny and bright, winter will have another flight,
if Candlemas day be cloudy with rain, winter is gone and won’t come again.
What is the connection between
these symbolic religious celebrations and the weather? Astronomy. The
transition point between seasons. February 2 is a cross-quarter day, halfway
between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. For millenia, people in the
Northern Hemisphere have noted that if the sun comes out at the mid-way point
between winter and spring, winter weather would continue for another six weeks.
As one might imagine, for humans living a subsistence existence the difference
was an important one, with implications for survival as well as hunting and
crops. It is not surprising that rituals and celebrations were linked to it.
America, since at least the sixteenth century, folklore has held that if on
February 2 a groundhog (or, as some call it, woodchuck) comes out of its hole
after winter hibernation and fails to see its shadow because the weather is
cloudy, winter will soon end. If on the other hand, it is sunny and the
groundhog sees its shadow, it will retreat into its burrow, and winter will
continue for six more weeks. Hence, Groundhog Day.
Take note of
the weather this February 2, when Candelora will be celebrated in Italy, and see if you can correctly predict the
weather for the remaining six weeks of winter.
The Festa della
Candelora in FLORENCE
References to the Feast of Candelora (‘Candelaia’ in Tuscan dialect) can
be found as far back as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in accounts by
chroniclers like Giovanni Villani and Bartolomeo Masi. Parish churches and
religious fraternities used to bless candles for parishioners to take home as a
symbol of purity and prayer. Church benefactors and nobles received candles
decorated with religious symbols or the family’s coat-of-arms. The Arte dei
Medici e Speziali (Physicians and Apothecaries Guild) were entrusted to ensure
the purity, quality and uniformity of the holy candles during their production.
During the granduchal reign, the entire court would unite in the Church of Santa Felicita for a solemn mass and to
receive the blessed candles from the priest. Even today, Florentine churches
distribute the holy candles to parishioners every February 2.