Candlemas began as a pagan holiday, the Festival of Lights, or a Midwinter Festival. It occurs during the midpoint between the Solstice and Equinox, celebrating the beginnings of the growing season. Known as Imbolc, Celtic for “in milk” or “in the belly,” it marked the first signs of spring and a time to bless livestock as well as the plow and other farming implements. In Europe, lambs were born at this time of year, bringing back the ewe’s milk to feed their young.
Imbolc was associated with Brigid, the Celtic-Irish goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and the creative forces of springtime. One of Imbolc’s traditions was observing the groundhog’s shadow to predict 40 more days of cold and snow, or the arrival of spring if he did not see his shadow on a cloudy day.
The Christians adopted Candlemas in the late fifth century as the Purification of the Virgin. It marked the end of the 40-day period after Mary gave birth to Jesus on December 25. Women were considered unclean for 40 days following childbirth. During Jesus’ Presentation at the Temple, Simeon called him “the Light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of the people.” The Christian tradition retained the practice of lighting candles to banish darkness. On Candlemas the Church blesses the candles that will be used in ceremonies during the coming year.
Today Saint Brigid is the patron saint of poetry and healing. Candlemas remains a celebration of hope and light. It honors the Lord as the “Light of the World” and serves as a reminder we carry that light within us.