I know what you’ll be doing on Sunday morning! Half of you will struggle down to the garden centre with the Christmas tree to have it chipped and the other half will be wondering how the box has shrunk by three inches since you got the tree out a month ago. All of you will find that one glass ornament has been broken, and all pet owners will find a stretch of tinsel that has had all the dangly bits chewed off it.
Popular lore has it that Christmas decorations have to be taken down on the evening of Twelfth Night ( ie. the evening of 5th January, before Twelfth Day, 6th January) or you will have bad luck in the following year. I assumed this was several-hundred-year-old folklore, but it seems not. I started on a trail to the truth when I was listening to a Christmassy CD1 by the folk singer, Kate Rusby, and was surprised to see a song called ‘Candlemas Eve’. ‘Ho!’ thought I. ‘Someone doesn’t know their history, or was one song short of an album’. But I was wrong. It seems that for a large stretch of history you didn’t take decorations down until Candlemas Eve, that is, the evening of 1st February.I also found the words quite strange, to the extent it took me quite a while to work out what they were. It turns out they are a 17th-century poem written by Robert Herrick.
Down with the rosemary and bay
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box for show.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.
(Robert Herrick (1591-1674), Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve)
The literal meaning is that you should take down your 17th-century Christmas decorations – rosemary, bay, mistletoe and holly – and replace them with fresh sprigs of box (the tree, not the cardboard item, for my urban friends!). The other verses list the plants to display for following seasons – yew, birch, rushes and oak leaves. The theme is laid out in the ‘chorus'; Herrick was a strong proponent of carpe diem (‘sieze the day’). His poems hold sadness at the loss of the past, and an urgency to grasp the future.
What made this stick in my mind is that evergreens are often associated with funerals, in Cumbria as well as other places. Box (as well as holly and yew) is one of Britain’s few native evergreens and, to quote Wordsworth, ‘in several parts of the north of England, when a funeral takes place, a basinful of sprigs of Box is placed at the door of the house from which the coffin is taken up; and each person who attends the funeral takes one of these sprigs, and throws it into the grave of the deceased’. 2 Not just Wordsworth’s Cumbria, either; three Roman graves have been discovered elsewhere in Britain lined with box sprays. Other parts of the country have a similar tradition using rosemary.
The connection between midwinter/Christmas decorations and funerals is, of course, that the evergreen leaves represent hope that there will be life again – whether in the ‘otherworld’ or with a new spring.
We’ve always searched for symbols to help us look forward to spring. ‘Candlemas’ is so-named because, despite the church’s official label as ‘Feast of the Purification of the Virgin’ or ‘The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple’3, it was celebrated throughout the middle ages (and to some extent beyond) with candles4. People brought candles to the church to be blessed, and these blessed candles were then used in the church to fill it with light and some were re-distributed to deserving parishioners to light their homes. Other references to festivals of light can be found, not least of which is the Irish St Brigid’s Day and the pagan festival of Imbolc on 1st February, with its association with a pagan goddess, also Brigid. 5
Christians and historians alike will assert that Candlemas is not an example of a pagan festival that was appropriated by christians because the date is a simple matter of mathematics, as Jewish women in this period were purified exactly 40 days after a birth. There is also an official line that the old link with candles is based on a quote from the gospel of Luke where Simeon refers to Jesus as a ‘light for revelation’.6
I don’t dispute this, but the entry on St Brigid in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints sees fit to mention that ‘…Gerald of Wales (d.c 1220) described a fire kept burning continuously at her shrine for centuries, tended by twenty nuns of her community’. It also says that ‘such details… has (sic) led some critics to identify Brigid unconvincingly with… heathen goddess’ and ‘historical facts about her are extremely rare; some scholars have doubted her (St Brigid’s) existence altogether’. Ronald Hutton7 also adds that there’s no evidence that the early Imbolc festival was linked to fire, or necessarily of a Brigid that pre-dates Jesus (there being no native writing), but there was certainly some suspiciously un-christian fire veneration going on in Ireland in the medieval period, and it’s linked to the dates of Imbolc/Candlemas.
A possibly older reference than the assorted Brigids of Ireland to our search for spring is illustrated in the name of the month, February. Februalia, after which the month is named, was a Roman purification8 festival that pre-dates the birth of Jesus, possibly by hundreds of years. The word holds the sense of ‘purging’, that is, out with the old, to make room for the new. Familiar?
Whatever peg you choose to hang your hat on, the only definite is that this is a time of year when we clear up the old, remember the good times, spring-clean, and look forward. I can go with that.
2. As quoted in The Forest Trees of Britain by Rev. CA Johns (1889), p73.
3. According to the church, Candlemas should be known as ‘The Presentation of Jesus and the Temple’, or the more old-fashioned ‘Feast of the Purification of the Virgin’. This is because Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus’s birth required a baby’s mother to keep away from the temple for 40 days after a birth, then re-attend for purification. 40 days after Christmas is 2nd February.
4. Pope Innocent XII said, ‘Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Plutoo stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin’. (From Curiousities of Popular Customs by W Shepard Walsh (1898), p168.)
5. I don’t think it’s especially controversial to say that these two are strongly linked.
6. Luke 2:32
7. Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (1996), pp134-145. Ref. Imbolc ‘The festival must be pre-christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then’ (p134).
8. How very handy for the ‘Feast of the Purification of the Virgin’.