By Joe Cannavo
Epiphany is gone and in the minds of Italian Americans and even some Italians, the holidays are really over. However, just when most people think that all the holidays related to the Nativity are really over in Italy, along comes Candelora, a religious feast held on Feb. 2. It is a celebration that is relatively unknown today. In fact, in some Italian homes the presepio or crèche is not taken down until this day. On that occasion the Catholic Church celebrates the Presentazione del Signore (Presentation of Our Lord). 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 Jesus’s mother would have followed as a Jewish woman. In the Jewish tradition, women were considered impure for 40 days after the delivery of a male child, and were not allowed to worship in the temple. After 40 days had passed, the women were brought to the temple to be purified. Feb. 2 is, in fact, 40 days after Dec. 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. 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 11th century.
For this occasion, the priest, wearing a purple-colored 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 ceremony 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 — which translates to English as “For the Holy Candelora, if 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 on Feb. 2 is a cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. For millennia, people in the Northern Hemisphere have noted that if the sun comes out at the midway 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.
Which brings us to what an Italian American would answer you if you asked him what day is Feb. 2? Of course, the answer would be Groundhog Day, which as you can understand has a loose connection to Candelmas. Which then explains why in North America, since at least the 16th century, folklore has held that if on Feb. 2 a groundhog (some call it a 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.
The most notable of Candelora commemorations in Italy takes place in Florence.
References to the Feast of Candelora, 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 Gran Ducal 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 Feb. 2.