Feast of Candelora

Italy’s Groundhog Day

Dixie McIlwain
January 29, 2009

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.


Many Italian 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.


In North 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.



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