The Origins of Candlemas

Madonna Lily. Photo by Maciek Godlewski.

Madonna Lily. Photo by Maciek Godlewski.


While there are many longstanding Pagan holidays observed in the beginning of February, the Christian holiday of Candlemas grew out of a specific Roman Pagan observance. February was an important festival month on the Roman calendar and thus began with a purification ceremony known as Juno Februa, Juno the Purifier. The most prominent of the Roman matriarchal deities, Juno is essentially the goddess of essence itself. She is thought of as a moon goddess, since her worship originally revolved around the lunar cycle, but this only partially explains her. She is the state of Being, illustrated by the waxing white moon appearing out of the black void. The Romans saw not only plants, animals, and inanimate objects such as rocks or mountains as having spirit, but core truths or principles as well. Thus the month of vital ceremonies required not simply purification practices, but the calling up of the essence of purification herself. Some say Juno Februa occurred at the second full moon following the winter solstice before Rome adopted a solar calendar, but by the start of the common era the date of the festival was fixed at forty days past the (also static) December 25th date of the winter soltice festivities.

Under Christian rule, Juno Februa became a celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary following the birth of Jesus. The mass was celebrated with a procession involving a great many candles like the earlier Roman holiday. Mary took on not only the ritual date and its association with purification, but Juno’s white lily. The lily became a symbol of Mary’s renewed purity. The goddess Juno, though like Mary also a mother, needed no such purification because the idea of pollution in childbirth was foreign to her cult. She came to bestow purification, not to partake of it, and would give birth a full month later to her own son, the god Mars. The birth of Mars was also a virgin birth: Juno conceived him through the fragrance of the white lily, the white lily being a form of Juno herself. In other words, Juno impregnated herself and her white lily symbolizes self generation.

Detail from restored statue of Juno. 2nd century. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Detail from restored statue of Juno. 2nd century. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Some attribute the instigation of Candlemas to Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century, but it appears that he was railing against the climactic February festival of Lupercalia, which eventually became St. Valentine’s day. Gelasius may have been successful at driving Lupercalia underground, where it began its own long transformation, but people continued to openly celebrate the Juno rite. In 684 Pope Sergius I officially instituted the mass of the Purification of the Virgin Mary at February 2nd on the church calendar. From the start many theologians protested the event, arguing that Mary would have needed no purification since she was impregnated not through sexual intercourse but by the Holy Spirit. Within the logic of Christianity they were right, but as time wore on the church had conflicts at Candlemas not only with remnants of the Roman pagan cult but with propitiation to weather deities and and fire goddesses elsewhere. The tension between theological purists and synergistic forces was eventually satisfied by fixing the time of the presentation of Jesus at the temple, which is referenced in scripture, at forty days following his birth, or February 2nd. The focus on Mary on this day remained popular with the masses, however, so the celebration of the purification of the Virgin, while declining in emphasis, never totally went away.

Today among witches and many other Pagans February 2nd is a time for vows and initiations. There are many reasons for this having to do with Celtic and Germanic beliefs, but the Roman observation of Juno Februa also fits nicely with this understanding of the holy day. During this time of commitment intentions need to be unassailable, informed by the essence of purity Herself.


Sources

Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence. The Year of the Goddess: A Perpetual Calender of Festivals. Wellborough, UK: Aquarian Press, 1990.

Hazlitt, William Carew and John Brand. Faiths and folklore of the British Isles. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. http://books.google.com/books/about/Faiths_and_folklore_of_the_British_Isles.html?id=JDXYAAAAMAAJ

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. London: Paul Hamlin, 1969.

Walsh, William Shepard. Curiosities of Popular Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances. 1898. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 1966 Reprint. http://books.google.com/books?id=VKwYAAAAIAAJ&dq=Candlemas+Pope+Innocent+XII&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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