February 2 might be Groundhog Day in the United States, but it’s also Candlemas on the Christian calendar. It’s the day when the Church celebrates Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of ritual purification and redemption of the firstborn. Despite the Catholic church’s official rejection of such theories, some believe that Candlemas was created to Christianize a pre-existing Roman holiday, Lupercalia, or perhaps a pre-existing Celtic holiday, Imbolc. Lupercalia was the feast of Lupercus, the god of fertility and herds. Imbolc was the feast of the goddess Brigit, and was marked by torchlit processions through the fields to invite purification and fertility for the coming spring. Whether he was motivated to co-opt these pagan holidays or not, it was Pope Gelasius I who instituted Candlemas in AD 492 and fixed its date on February 2. The blessing of candles and candlelit processions supplanted earlier pagan rites and gave rise to the name of the holiday.
These days in France, though, Candlemas (or Chandeleur, from chandelle, meaning “candle”) is known less for its candles and more for its …
That’s right. Pancakes. Somehow the French, in their infinite culinary wisdom, decided that there’s no better way to commemorate Mary’s ritual purification and the redemption of her firstborn than by pigging out on crêpes! Now, it’s not precisely clear why the French eat crêpes on Chandeleur, but there is a theory that Pope Gelasius himself gave rise to the practice by distributing pancakes to pilgrims arriving in Rome to celebrate the holiday. That would make sense. Those round, buttery, golden pancakes could certainly serve as beautiful symbols of both the sun that would soon return to warm the Earth after a long, hard winter and Jesus, the “Light of the World.” In addition, since February was the start of the winter planting season, leftover flour from the winter stock could be used to make pancakes as a symbol of the plenty that would hopefully arrive in the coming year.
Speaking of “plenty,” the French also have a fortune-telling tradition on Chandeleur. While holding a gold piece (or these days, a 2-euro piece, I guess) in the left hand, the cook tries to flip a crêpe with the right. If the cook can successfully maneuver that pan and catch the crêpe with no resulting kitchen catastrophe, the year ahead will be prosperous. Despite the frigid weather this week in Paris, we’ve decided to venture out to one of our favorite crêperies tonight, so we won’t have the opportunity to try this at home. Knowing our luck in the kitchen, though, it’s probably better that we won’t tempt the fates!
9 P.M. Update: The pics from the crêperie!
But speaking of that cold snap …
… let’s get back to that groundhog for a moment.
What about the winter forecast in France? As a matter of fact, just like our Groundhog Day, Chandeleur is also connected with winter weather prognostication in France:
À la Chandeleur, l’hiver se meurt ou prend vigueur.
On Candlemas, winter dies or finds vigor.
Okay, we knew that already. But if there’s no groundhog to tell us, how are we supposed to know what to expect? Well …
Rosée à la Chandeleur, l’hiver à sa dernière heure.
Dew on Candlemas, winter is in its final hour.
Si la Chandeleur pleure, l’hiver ne demeure.
If Candlemas cries (if it rains), winter won’t stay.
Si la Chandeleur dégoute, l’hiver est passé sans doute.
If Candlemas has nasty weather, winter has passed
without doubt (which actually means “probably”).
Chandeleur claire, l’hiver derrière. Chandeleur trouble, l’hiver redouble.
A clear Candlemas, winter’s behind. A stormy Candlemas, winter redoubles.
Quand Notre-Dame de la Chandeleur luit, l’hiver quarante jours s’ensuit.
When Our Lady of Candlemas gleams, forty days of winter follows.
Now, wait a minute! This is all contradictory. Or maybe I just don’t understand French proverbs. Sigh. Alright, forget the wisdom of generations and generations of Frenchmen and just tell me what Punxsutawney Phil had to say this morning so I’ll know how long this is going to last! No, wait. On second thought, I think I might prefer General Beauregard Lee‘s prediction this year.
In the meantime, I’m going to bundle up and go eat some crêpes.
Happy Groundhog Day! Bonne fête !
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved