Yesterday I received a Christmas card from a friend who had been too busy to take care of it at the usual time. It was a rather unexpected and nice surprise although I must admit that it felt a bit odd to start into the second month of the year with wishes for a merry Christmas. Then I remembered that according to Roman Catholic tradition the Christmas season wasn’t really over. Candlemas was still to come – today on 2 February.
However secular I and many Austrians may be today, the Christian heritage is still strong here, especially regarding old customs. In fact, there are several customs regarding Candlemas that are still practiced in some places, and I don’t mean in church. It’s true that for me Candlemas is of no importance at all and I reckon that many people in my country haven’t even heard of the feast. I too didn’t have a clue what it actually was about until I looked it up in a book.
Candlemas is celebrated exactly forty days after Christmas. According to the information handed on to us from our forefathers and clergy, it’s the day when Mother Mary had to make an offering to God in order to regain her purity after having given birth. Despite the Christian background of Candlemas the origins of this feast of Purification are – like so often – pagan; to be precise they date back to the days of the ancient Roman Empire or even before. Christian tradition adopted the old pagan customs and just gave them a new meaning.
In church the priest blesses candles on 2 February, namely all candles needed during the whole year. The blessed candles stand for a year full of light, protection and consolation. In some rural areas Candlemas singers or fiddlers go from door to door and collect money for things that need to be bought or repaired in the local church. In return for the donations (and the refreshments that they have been offered) they sing songs.
2 February also is an important day in peasants’ weather maxims. There are many different verses known that link the weather conditions of the day with the duration of winter. Summing up it may be said that all of them predict a long winter if it’s fine and mild at Candlemas. By the way, I was surprised to learn that the origins of the American Groundhog or Marmot Day can be traced back to the weather maxims circulating in Austria and other German-speaking areas of Europe.