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Catholic Candlemas and Punxsutawney Phil

February 2, 2018


Before your neighbors say a single word or throw a little shade . . . let me tell you: you don’t need to have those Christmas decorations down so soon. Well, you have until February 2. Just wish everyone “Happy Holidays and/or Holy Days.” And, if they’re still listening, explain that the celebration of our Lord’s birth doesn’t end on December 26, no matter how persistent some people are in dragging their trees to the curb on the second day of Christmas. (I’ve always wondered if these people spend Christmas night un-decorating their trees so that they can be out on the street when dawn breaks on the morning of the 26th. Such a sad sight.) 

The Church gives us the slow Advent build up to Christmas, in spite of the surrounding cultural pressure. It also gives us a slow, steady time to taper off from all the trappings of the season, while never forgetting what we are celebrating.

As we know, there are twelve days of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. (If you have included a house blessing on Epiphany, complete with chalk above your front door—e.g., 20+C+M+B+18—perhaps your neighbors are curious about your decoration customs. Or maybe they are afraid to ask.) Our time of celebration is legitimately prolonged until the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification or Candlemas—and, for those of us weather-obsessed and winter-weary in the Northern Hemisphere, Groundhog Day.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the custom was for the mother of a male child to present him at the temple forty days after his birth, along with a lamb and a pigeon as a sacrifice. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph were poor and could not afford a lamb, so Jesus was presented in the temple with two turtledoves for sacrifice. (Remember those two turtledoves that kept popping up in Muzak back in November?) It was at his presentation that the prophet Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms. At this moment he knew that the savior he had been waiting for had arrived and prayed his glorious Nunc dimittis.

On this last of the holy days that celebrate the arrival of the Light of the World, we celebrate Candlemas, the day when the candles for the coming year are blessed, often including the recitation of the Nunc dimittis (which I still remember singing as the post-communion hymn from my Lutheran childhood and can only recite in its King James version: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”—Luke 2:29). In the blessing of the candles on Candlemas, we emphasize once more Jesus as the Light of the World.

The candles used in church must be at least 51 percent beeswax. This is not just an aesthetic directive—though anyone who has had a chance to work with beeswax candles knows their exquisite tactile nature, their beautiful fragrance, and all around superior performance. The wax from bees is very symbolic, but practicality allows us to use candles that are a minimum of 51 percent beeswax. (If you have spent any time paging through church supply catalogues and balancing budgetary concerns, it is immediately apparent why most parishes would need to go without pure beeswax candles, as marvelous as they may be. But there must be the minimum of 51 percent beeswax.) The pure wax extracted by bees from flowers symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from his Virgin Mother; the wick signifies the soul of Christ; and the flame represents His divinity. Everything involved with our sacred liturgy has a meaning, and all these things point to Christ.

I found an interesting reference online about some Candlemas superstitions that developed over time, including a belief that if Christmas decorations are not removed by Candlemas, traces of holly, etc. may lead to the death of the foot-dragger who can’t get things removed in time. Perhaps this translates in our time to the “social death” that accompanies the notoriety of being the last person on your block to have decorations left up—or worse, the person who receives sanctions from an indignant homeowners association.

Many cultures have also had weather lore that sprang up in relation to Candlemas. There is an old English rhyme:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

And the German equivalent:

“But if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into his hole.”

Naturally, one name comes to mind when we hear rhymes such as this: Punxsutawney Phil. The American development of the old custom, brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants, lives on to this day, and the media of the United States still descend upon a town in Pennsylvania to see if the groundhog sees his shadow. Other zoos throughout the nation have their own groundhogs, but no groundhog “holds a candle” (is that a day-appropriate phrase or what?) to Punxsutawney Phil.

Who knew a pop culture star like Punxsutawney Phil (whichever actual lucky groundhog happens to hold the title at the time) owes his fame to Catholic custom? Or that we are totally correct in keeping our decorations up until the beginning of February? We are not slackers. We are keeping the message out there. Jesus is “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Jesus is the light of the world.