Magazine article The Spectator

Lighting Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Lighting Up

Article excerpt

What a depressingly sunless month January was, here on this rainswept Devon peninsula! No sun, and purple sprouting broccoli for lunch every day as there's a glut of it and not much else. The entire village is suffering from seasonal affective disorder and tortured by flatulence.

And we've still got February and possibly March to go before we can even think about casting a clout.

On Saturday, though, this interminable succession of dark days was punctuated by a Christian festival; 2 February was Candlemas Day, when candles are lit in the Anglican, Catholic and Greek churches to commemorate the 40th day after the Nativity, when Mary went to the Temple to be ceremonially purified.

The law given unto Moses states that after giving birth a woman is unclean for seven days. On the eighth day the child, if male, must be circumcised. After that the woman must wait another 33 days and then be ceremonially purified by the sacrifice of a lamb and a dove. If she had a baby girl she must wait 66 days. The lighted candles of Candlemas symbolise Simeon's prediction, as he took Mary's babe in his arms, that the child would be 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'.

In the gents' lavatory at my local pub, above the light switch, some wag has written the words 'a light to lighten the genitals' in black felt-tip pen. So at least one person who frequents the place is familiar enough with the verse in Luke's gospel to try to make a pun out of it. But most other people, I suspect, assume that it's just another health and safety notice.

But who am I to sneer at other people's ignorance, when I only found out about Candlemas by coming across an Anglican website by accident on the morning of the day itself? The website was very informative. It said that the festival is actually superimposed on an even older pagan fire festival called Imbolc. At this stage of the winter, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, people used to build great bonfires to draw down from heaven the divine energy of the sun. How the early Church fathers managed to persuade these dutiful pagans to exchange their huge midwinter sun-worshipping bonfires for a lighted candle commemorating the arcane purification ritual of an obscure Semitic tribe, I'll never understand.

The spirit of the Imbolc bonfires lingers on, however, in the superstition that if, on Candlemas Day, the sun shines strongly enough for an animal to see its own shadow, then it's going to be a long hard winter. …

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