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 …
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