Cross-posted on my personal blog:
Candlemas is the common name for a Christian holy day that commemorates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin Mary.1 At the time of Jesus’ birth, Jewish tradition dictated that on the fortieth day after giving birth a woman would go to the temple to present her child to the Lord.2 Forty days from Christmas day brings us to February 2nd, the day on which Christians celebrate the occasion of the Holy Family’s visit to the temple in Jerusalem for the presentation of the Christ Child.3
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.—1 John 1:5
There is no consensus among historians regarding the exact origins of this feast day, though there are a few theories. It’s possible that the Roman Catholic Church instituted the celebration of Candlemas sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries; others believe that Candlemas is the result of the Church’s efforts to Christianize various pagan celebrations that took place during the month of February.  Regardless of its murky origins, one can imagine why the first public presentation of Jesus Christ, who is called The Light of the World, might come to be associated with the lighting of candles. 
In earlier times, Candlemas was seen as the official end of the Christmas season, which lasted much longer than it does today. Even as recently as the late nineteenth century it was common not to remove the Christmas greenery until Candlemas, at which time it was traditionally burned in the family fireplace. 
Other Candlemas traditions naturally arose over the centuries, perhaps the most well-known being the “blessing of the candles.” We can take a closer look at this tradition by becoming acquainted with a branch from my very own family tree. My mother’s family traces its roots to the French colony of Acadie, located in Atlantic Canada and comprising such places as New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.  In fact, my maternal line (my mother’s mother’s mother . . . etc) recedes back through time to a woman named Catherine LeJeune who lived in Port Royal, Acadie (now Annapolis, Nova Scotia) in the seventeenth century. 
Like her fellow Acadians, my ancestor Catherine LeJeune was a Roman Catholic from France and she would, no doubt, have been quite familiar with Candlemas. Historical documents show that the annual blessing of the candles in Acadie, during which time families would bring their year’s supply of candles to be blessed by their parish priest, goes back several hundred years. For example, in 1693 Joseph Robineau de Villebon, a commanding officer in the Acadian colony, delivered sixty candles to Beaubassin (in Nova Scotia) on behalf of the inhabits of the parish to be blessed by their priest on Candlemas morning. 
In Acadie, the blessed candles were used for many purposes throughout the year: To protect the house, to use when the priest came to a home to bring communion to the sick, or to burn while the family kept vigil over the body of a loved one who had died. Some midwives would light a blessed candle during a difficult birth, and Acadian fishermen sometimes kept a blessed candle on their boat to light during stormy weather.  The blessing of the candles was preserved in Acadian parishes until very recently. 
Another Acadian tradition that took place on Candlemas was the door-to-door collection of food to be used for a community meal later in the day. Anyone with a large enough house could host the party. This activity was not only entertaining for all involved, but it was also an act of charity—any food that was left over after the party was given to the poor. In some villages the collection of food was done almost exclusively for the purpose of providing for the sick, the widows, and the poor. 
Nous sommes les gens de la Chand’leur
Allez-vous nous donner d’la fleur?
(We are the Candlemas people,
Are you going to give us any flour?)—from Arsenault’s “Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day”
I invite you to celebrate Candlemas on February 2nd—perhaps with a candle-making activity. I also encourage you to make a donation to your local food shelf, in the spirit of the Acadian Candlemas collections of long ago.
You might also enjoy this traditional Acadian recipe, traditionally eaten on Candlemas day.
Crêpes à la Neige (Pancakes with Snow)
adapted from Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day by Georges Arsenault, 2012
1 c flour
1 – 1 1/4 c milk
1/2 tsp salt
1 c fresh, hard-packed snow
butter (for frying)
1. Heat a griddle or large pan on medium heat.
2. Mix all the ingredients together to make a smooth dough.
3. Grease the griddle or pan with butter.
4. Drop spoonfuls of batter onto the griddle and fry on medium heat until edges are cooked and bubbles form on top.
5. Flip over and fry until golden brown. Serve with maple syrup or grated maple sugar.
1 Georges Arsenault, Acadian Traditions on Candlemas Day (Charlottetown, PEI, Canada: Acorn Press, 2012), p 15
2 Sarah Breathnach, Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p 61
4 Arsenault, p 15
5 Mala Powers, Follow the Year (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p 58
6 Breathnach, p 61
7 Arsenault, p 8
8 Caroline Hamelin, La généalogie de la famille Savoie (1912), p 11 (https://archive.org/details/lagnalogiede00hameuoft/page/11)
9 Arsenault, p 15
10 Arsenault, p 19
11 Arsenault, p 16
12 Arsenault, pp 45-46
The 6th of January is the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, also called Three Kings Day or Twelfth Night in some places. The word “epiphany” is derived from the Greek word Ἐπιφάνεια, (Epiphaneia), which means “manifestation.” The etymology of the word points to its origins in the Eastern Church, and it was historically a celebration of the manifestation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, varying locally in its observance of different events from Jesus’s childhood. The first mention of a celebration called Epiphany comes from the writing of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who noted in 361 A.D. that it was considered Christ’s Birthday. In the Western Church a particular focus on the visitation of the Magi, also known as the Three Kings or Wise Men, has developed over the years.
Celebrate with Family and Friends
My mother-in-law is a retired high school French teacher, and has introduced many French traditions to our family. The French celebrated Epiphany with great fervor until the French Revolution, when anything religious or related to the monarchy fell out of favor or was outright banned. Despite no longer being a public holiday, many in France still celebrate Epiphany with the Gallete des Rois or Kings’ Cake.
We always celebrate Epiphany with my in-laws. My mother-in-law cooks several dishes inspired by the flavors of the Middle East. We also have gingerbread cupcakes instead of a cake. For fun, my mother-in-law bakes a bean into one of them. Whoever finds the bean is crowned king or queen, and gets to wear the special tinfoil crown. It’s always a joy to be the one to discover the bean. The Kings also bring little gifts wrapped up in brown paper–often books–that are hidden throughout the house for the children to find.
VIVE LE ROI – the one, true king, Jesus Christ!
Menu for the Feast of the Epiphany
Recipes courtesy of my mother-in-law, Sharon Wilson.
1 c bulgur
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 c boiling water
1/3 c lemon juice
1/3 c olive oil
3/4 red onion, diced
5 plum tomatoes, diced
1 European cucumber, diced
3 cups fresh parsley, chopped
Pour boiling water over bulgur and salt. Cover and let sit for thirty minutes. Add olive oil and lemon juice, and refrigerate until chilled. Finally, add the onion, tomatoes, cucumber, and parsley just before serving.
Chickpea and Spinach Curry
Ingredient & Directions:
Sauté in 8 quart pot for three minutes:
2 onions, chopped
2 tsp oil
2 Tbsp bottled ginger
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp curry powder
Add to pot and simmer for two minutes:
2 cans chickpeas
2 cans diced tomatoes, undrained
Add to pot, and cook for one minute or until wilted:
8 c fresh spinach
1/2 tsp salt
Serve over basmati rice and pita bread.
Gingerbread Cupcakes des Rois
adapted from Family Circle Light & Easy Meals(1996)
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1/3 c granulated sugar
1/3 c packed light-brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c light molasses
1/4 c applesauce
1/4 c milk
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 egg whites
1 whole egg
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line twelve 3.5-inch muffin pan cups with cupcake liners. Stir together flour, sugar, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, cloves, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together molasses, applesauce, milk, oil, egg whites, and egg in another bowl. Fold in flour mixture until just moistened and spoon batter into muffin cups–don’t forget to put a bean into one of them! Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely.
Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.
—Old English Rhyme
When asked to name times during the year that are of great importance to Christians, most people would suggest Christmas and Easter; not many of them would say “Ember Days.” But, Ember Days are an ancient tradition that predates Christmas, Advent, and many other Christian celebrations, and can be traced all the way back to the time of the Hebrew Scriptures, when a fast of the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months was prescribed. During Jesus’s time there was also a Jewish custom of fasting every Tuesday and Thursday of the week. The first Christians carried on these two traditions, but chose to fast instead on Wednesday and Friday, the day Jesus was betrayed and the day he died, respectively.1
There are several different explanations for the origins of the name “Ember Days.” Some say it is a corruption of the Latin name Quatuor Temporum, which means “Four Times” or “Four Seasons.”2 It’s also possible that the term could be derived from the ancient Saxon language, where Emb, or embe, means a “course” or “circuit.”3
Like a circuit, the Ember Days are a quarterly series of Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, taking place at the beginning of each natural season, that are set aside as a time of fasting and prayer: Michaelmas Embertide in September, signaling the beginning of autumn; Advent Embertide in December, ushering in the winter season; Lenten Embertide, which arrives in spring; and Whit Embertide comes at the start of the summer season.4 These three days each season provide the faithful with an opportunity to contemplate the wonder of God through His creation – that is, the natural world – and to engage in self-reflection. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century, provides an excellent model for Embertide contemplation. He writes,5
If any man attempt to speak of God, let him first describe the bounds of the earth. Thou dwellest on the earth, and the limit of this earth which is thy dwelling thou knowest not: How then shalt thou be able to form a worthy thought of its Creator? Thou beholdest the stars, but their Maker thou beholdest not: Count these which are visible, and then describe Him who is invisible, Who telleth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names.
Ember Days Around the Year
In addition to their associations with the changing seasons, Ember Days also correspond to other feasts during the Christian Year. Michaelmas Embertide follows the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14th); Advent Embertide comes on the heels of St. Lucy’s Day (December 13th); Lenten Embertide is paired, of course, with the start of Lent; and Whit Embertide, as its name suggests, is associated with Whitsunday (Pentecost). By observing the Ember Days at the beginning of each season, we are retrieving this ancient aspect of our ecclesiastical history, which is said to have originated with the Apostles themselves, as well as our shared cultural history.
Even those who are not practicing Christians can appreciate the historical significance of the Ember Days—anyone with European roots will be in good company with their ancestors, for whom these four weeks during the year were of great importance. So, let’s take this opportunity to pick up where the collective “we” left off. Let’s spend a little bit of time: fasting Note 1, using our skills or resources for the benefit of others, and contemplating God and His creation which was placed in the care of our most distant ancestors, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.
Note 1 Fasting provides an opportunity to consider God’s gifts and how to use them in moderation. For Catholics, fasting on Ember Days means one regular meal per day (two smaller meals in morning and evening, no snacks) on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with the addition of abstaining from meat on Friday.
1 “Ember Days, Rogations Days, and Station Churches,” Holy Trinity (German) Catholic Church, www.holytrinitygerman.org, 5/13/15
3 “Ember Days,” an excerpt from A Companion for the Book of Common Prayer by John Henry Hobart, Anglican Bible & Book Society, www.anglicanbible.org, 9/19/12
5 “Ember Days” by Tracy Tucciarone, Fish Eaters, www.fisheaters.com, 7/30/06