La Chandeleur

chandeleur 02

Today, February 2,  is Groundhog day in America and la fête de la chandeleur in France.  Any connection?  Well, apparently there is.

It seems that in pagan Germanic and Scandinavian cultures, at this time of year, when bears emerged from hibernation and had a look around to see if the weather was warming up (although history does not relate whether the bears were concerned about seeing their shadows), there were wild celebrations.  The festivities involved dressing up as bears and a certain amount of ravishing of maidens and general debauchery.   There are many other ancient references to the return of light and fruitfulness on this date in February (from februarius, the month of purification in Antiquity) whether it be the Roman festum candelabrum, when candles were lit at midnight in purification, or the return to earth of Persephone after her annual stint in Hades.

As so often was the case, the early Catholic church felt it had some work to do reining in these excesses and, from the 4th century, instituted the dual Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin, fixing the date on February 2.  However for another hundred years northern Europe clung stubbornly to its rituals of processing around the fields with torches and celebrating the return of light and fertility with such gusto that eventually Pope Gelasius came up with a compromise festivity called Chandelours, combining candles with bears, and had  pancakes distributed to pilgrims arriving in Rome for the feast day.  (The Celtic festival of Imbolg, marking the beginning of Spring on Feb 1 was lumped in with the mix and later became the feast of St Brighid).

Growing up in England, I recall this date as Candlemas, but with no specific events attaching to it.   We made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday at the start of Lent, but in France pancakes, or more properly crêpes, are made at chandeleur in a mish-mash event to mark the turning of the seasons, the end of the Christmas festivities and auguries for a prosperous year to come.  This is the date on which to light all your candles and put away the nativity scene, marking the end of the Christmas period.  By tradition you should toss your crêpes with a coin in the other hand in hopes of a good financial year to come and a Breton friend of ours insists that the first pancake should land up on top of the kitchen dresser, where it is left inviolate for the whole year to ensure a good harvest.

It seems a bit early to talk about the return of Spring, but the days are getting longer, we are already half way between the solstice and the equinox and any excuse is a good one to toss crêpes, so here we go!

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