Chandeleur or Candlemas Day
Candlemas Day – Chandeleur in French – is a liturgical festival.
It celebrates the anniversary of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
It is a fixed date event celebrated 40 days after Christmas, on February 2.
It not an official holiday in France, but the tradition is to eat pancakes on that day.
Candlemas Day originated with candlelight processions that were organized for the celebration of this festival.
The French word for candle is chandelle hence chandeleur.
The roots of the celebration, however, go back to the pagan era.
Candlemas Day’s Greek and Roman origins
The Roman Candelabrum Festa was the celebration of Light and of Proserpina, the Goddess of Light abducted by Pluto the God of the Underworld.
Proserpina had to spend the six months of autumn and winter alongside her husband as Queen of the Underworld.
She spent the remaining six months of the year on Earth helping her mother Demeter, the Goddess of Agriculture and Harvest, to look after spring and summer.
During the Festa Candelarum, Romans lit candles at midnight as a symbol of purification in order to prepare for the Lupercalia.
This other major pagan festival took place on February 15 in order to celebrate Lupercus, the God of Fertility and Flocks.
The Church of Rome later replaced the Lupercalia by the celebration of St. Valentine or Valentine’s Day.
Celtic origin and Cult of the Bear
Celts had a similar festival, Imbolc.
They celebrated on 1 February in honour of Birgit, their Goddess of Fertility and Purification.
Men walked through the fields with torches, while invoking the goddess to purify the land before they started sowing.
The Church of Rome replaced Birgit by Ste-Brigitte who is celebrated on February 1 on the calendar of saints.
Some other pagan groups celebrated the Cult of the Bear when the animal came out of hibernation.
Chandelours – candle bear celebrated therefore the return of the light late January, early February.
The Church of Rome replaced all pagan celebrations by the Chandeleur (candlelight festival or Candlemas Day) during the 5th century.
It had enormous difficult, however, to eradicate the Cult of the Bear celebrations where bonfires and torch processions were accompanied by mock abductions of girls and fancy dress parties!
Christian Candlemas Day – Chandeleur
The priest blessed the candles as their light was believed to ward off evil and symbolize the light of Christ.
They were used as torches and taken back home to protect the hearth.
During the 14th century, Chandeleur – Candlemas Day was associated with the purification of the Virgin.
For most of the Middle Ages, however, it remained still known as Chandelours in many regions of France.
Candlemas Day’s crêpes – pancakes
Men have prepared wheat pancakes for time immemorial.
The French word for pancake is crêpe and comes from the Latin crispa that meant curled.
It was (still is) a tradition to prepare French pancakes or crêpes for the Chandeleur.
Their round shape is indeed a reminiscence of the sun and the return of the daylight after the long winter months, the vital light allowing for the first sowing of the year.
Left-over flour had to be used in order to ensure a new beginning, a good harvest and by extension prosperity for the year to come.
Pancake making on Candlemas Day generated many regional superstitions.
Pancakes had be tossed and land flat in the pan in order to bring prosperity in the year to come.
In some regions the first pancake was kept in the food safe for the whole season to ensure a good harvest.
It was obliviously a bad omen if they got moldy.
Finally, people ate their crêpes in the light of blessed candles!