Monday, December 24, 2012

What is 'Candlemass'?

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In many cultures, including in some Latin countries today, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season. It is celebrated on February 2nd, the 40th day after Christmas, and is technically known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., wrote in 1871 that "We apply the name of Christmas to the forty days which begin with the Nativity of our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year..."

The basis of the Feast of the Purification was the Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the Temple to worship. This was 40 days after the birth of a son and 60 days after the birth of a daughter. At the end of the 40 or 60 days, the mother was brought to the Temple or synagogue and ritually purified. Now she can go to religious services again, and generally go out in public. See Leviticus 12:2-8 (opens in a new page at Bible Gateway).

This feast is also celebrated as the Presentation of the Lord, when the infant Jesus was taken to the Temple by his parents according to Jewish custom. See Gospel of Luke 2: 22-39.

In many ways, Candlemas can be thought of a pivotal feast. It is forty days since Christmas and Lent is coming soon (Lent can begin as early as February 4 and as late as March 10 on the western Christian liturgical calendar; your mileage may vary). Likewise, the words of Simeon the Just at the Presentation reinforce the pivotal nature of this date. The section on Candlemas at Oremus notes:
… the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will pierce, lead on to the Passion and to Easter. The scriptures and the liturgy of the Christmas season have several pointers to the suffering of the Lord, but none more potent than the words of Simeon.
At Candlemas, there is also the traditional observance of blessing beeswax candles and distributing the candles to clergy and the laity. The candles recall the lights of Christmas, and also symbolize Simeon's words to Mary and Joseph that Jesus would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."

According to "Candlemas" article at the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), this was also the day that by tradition all candles that would be used for the next year were blessed. Christians were observing Candlemas in Jerusalem as early as the 4th century A.D. By the middle of the 5th century, candles were lit on this day to symbolize that Jesus Christ was the light, the truth and the way. The feast spread slowly and wasn’t well known even in the 7th century.

Like Christmas, Candlemas also has its secular side. In some prosperous manors of old England, this extension of Christmas-tide was marked by music, dancing, games and feasting: A "lord of misrule," or "abbot of unreason" was appointed, whose duty it was to play the part of a buffoon. In addition,
"The larder was filled with capons, hens, turkeys, geese, ducks, beef, mutton, pork, pies, puddings, nuts, plums, sugar and honey.... A glowing fire, made of great logs, the principal of which was termed the 'Yule log,' or Christmas block, which might be burnt till Candlemas eve, kept out the cold; and the abundance was shared by the lord's tenants amid music, conjuring, riddles, hot-cockles, fool-plough, snap-dragon, jokes, laughter, repartees, forfeits, and dances."
Many poems and carols celebrate Candlemas. By tradition, Candlemas eve was the date upon which all Christmas decorations were removed. The mid-17th century English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote at least four poems concerning Candlemas. In his "Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve," [Down With The Rosemary, And So] he wrote
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
In his longer "Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve," [Down With The Rosemary and Bays] he wrote:
DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.
This poem was adapted into a carol, Candlemas Eve Carol, set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Likewise, Candlemas day had its own traditions. In "Upon Candlemas Day," Herrick wrote:
END now the white loaf and the pie,
And let all sports with Christmas die.
Finally, in "The Ceremonies for Candlemas Day," [Kindle The Christmas Brand] he wrote:
Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn ;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year,
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.
This latter poem celebrates the tradition that Christmas plants would be burned and the Yule log was to be allowed to burn down completely, but that a portion should be held back to start next year’s Yule log (and as a good luck charm against "mischief"). The ashes were to be spread over the gardens to ensure a good harvest. Also, the Yule log for the next year would be chosen then.
And there is this poem from colonial Williamsburg, first published in the 18th Century:
When New Year's Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.
Candlemas was also believed to be a good day for weather forecasting (it falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox). If it were a sunny day, there would be forty more days of cold and snow. This belief has carried into folklore tradition in England, Scotland, Mexico, the United States (as Groundhog Day), in Germany (using a badger instead of a ground hog), and many other places. One English rhyme says:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.
In Western Europe, this was also the time for preparing the fields for the first planting.
Likewise, many carols of the period refer to Candlemas as the conclusion of the Christmas season.
In Christemas Hath Made An End, the singer laments the end of this Christmas-tide and the return to the fields:
Christemas hath made an end,
  Well-a-day! well-a-day!Which was my dearest friend,
  More is the pity!For with an heavy heart
Must I from thee depart,
To follow plow and cart
All the year after.
Keyte and Parrott, in The New Oxford Book of Carols, note that in the 17th century, there was little work to be done in the fields during winter, and that the Christmas-tide was, by nature, an extended holiday which could be lengthened to Candlemas (as in this carol), although rarely beyond Epiphany (January 6th).
The carol Farewell To Christmas begins:
Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day! [1]
The reference to Hallowtide comes from a tradition that the monarch would announce on All Hallows (November 1) where he or she would spend Christmas. There's a tradition I could live with! Celebrate the holidays from November 1 through February 2! See: Now Have Good Day, Now Have Good Day!
The carol Of The Purification concludes with:
Farewell, Christmas fair and free;
Farewell, New Years day with thee;
Farewell the holy Epiphany; [2]
Another carol, The fyrst day of yole have we in mynd, begins with:
Make we mirth
For Christ’s birth,
And sing we yule till Candlemas.
The last verse of this carol, which is an enumeration of the feasts of Christmas-tide, is:
On the xl [40] Day came Mary mild,
Unto the temple with her child,
To show her clean that never was defiled,
And therewith endeth Christmas. [3]
But this is not just an old tradition, now forgotten. In many Latin countries, the tradition of Candlemas is still celebrated.
In Mexico, la Rosca de Reyes, a sweet circular cake is served with a doll baked inside representing the baby Jesus (similar to Mardi Gras Kings Cake) and is served with hot chocolate on Epiphany (known locally as Three Kings Day or El Dia de los Reyes Magos). The person who finds the baby in their slice is to host the forthcoming celebration Candelaria or Candlemas on February 2nd (when a feast of tamalitos and hot chocolate is enjoyed by all). According to an article in the Oaxaca Times by Gayle Hanson, when 20 or thirty people are on hand sometimes several babies are baked into the cake, all the better to spread out the cost of the next party among friends.
The Rosca de Reyes was used by the friars to evangelize: a small doll, representing the Christ child, is baked right in the bread- "hidden", to symbolize the hiding of the infant from King Herod's troops on the day of Los Santos Inocentes, the Holy Innocents.
As was the case in old England, it is on this day that the nativity scene and all the Christmas decorations are put away.

1. Songs, Carols, and other Miscellaneous Poems, from the Balliol MS. 354, ed. R. Dyboski, E. E. T. S., Extra ser., CI [1907], 18. This carol may also be found in Richard Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), Carol 38.Return
2. Of The Purification, found MS Eng. Poet. e I, (ed. Wright, as above, p. 57, "Of the Puryfycacion"). This carol may also be found in Richard Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), Carol 37. Return
3. MS Eng. Poet, e. I, printed Percy Society (ed. T. Wright), XXIII (London, 1848), 24. This carol; with some variants, is also found in MS Sloane 2593, printed Warton Club (ed. Wright; London, 1856), p. 98. Cf. Another similar carol in MS Sloane, "Wolcum be thou, hevene kynge," on p. 93 of the Warton Club’s printing, or in E. E. L., p. 232. This carol may also be found in Richard Greene, ed., A Selection of English Carols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), Carol 3. Return


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

10 Spiritual Practices toward a Peaceful Christmas

by The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton
Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Everett, Washington

"God rest ye, merry gentlemen - let nothing you dismay. Remember, Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day!" 
          For many of us, the Advent and Christmas seasons can often mean the onset of a couple of unwelcome guests - Stress and Depression. In the midst of what is presented as a joyous time, we can often experience a burden of expectations (imposed by others or by the self) that can create a long list of demands upon us - parties, gatherings, watching a seemingly endless series of traditional movies, attending the theater or ballet, shopping, baking, Christmas pageant preparations, cleaning and entertaining, as well as decorating and driving around looking for "needed" items (just to name just a few stress triggers).

          It's so important to remind ourselves and our families that the Spirit of Christmas is not some kind of divine bullwhip driving us into a manic frenzy of over-commitment and consumerism. Rather, the Spirit of Christmas is a gently-whispered invitation to enter the quiet contemplation of the Holy Nativity scene - the hidden Crèche within each of our hearts, wherein lies the sleeping Christ Child.
          Through some practical spiritual practices, we can help ourselves to minimize the stress that accompanies the Season and ensure that the King of Peace really is born into our world (into and through each one of us) this Christmas. To this end, here are 10 spiritual practices I have put together for your consideration this month. 
1) Acknowledge your feelings. Whatever your feelings about this time of year or Christmas, acknowledge them. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with those you love, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and even grief at significant holidays and anniversary dates. It's alright to take time to mourn or express your feelings. Try not to "force yourself" or permit others to force you to be artificially cheerful just because it's the holiday season. Choose how you will manage your feelings and care for yourself, so that you can be authentically present to others (and to God), honoring your own needs as well as those of others.
2) Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community; come to our various church services or other social events around you - even if it's just for a little while. These resources and gatherings can offer support and companionship, even if all you talk about is the sale at Macy's, contemplate the weather, or just rest and take in what's happening around you. Volunteering your time to help others is a great way to change your focus as well as broaden your friendships. Practice community - by bringing your whole and sacred self into the presence of the Season.
3) Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like years gone by. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals can change as well. Feeling nostalgic is natural, but we also follow a God who promises to renew all things. So, choose a few traditions to hold on to, but be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails, videos or Skype!
4) Set aside differences. (This is not asking the same as asking for reconciliation, which can be a life-long spiritual work). As a spiritual practice for the Season, try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. If you really cannot tolerate someone's unhealthy behavior, limit your exposure to them through clear boundary setting of your time and participation - plan for a low-key, healthy exit strategy for the times when you may need one. You may even want to create a rescue code word or phrase (like "fruitcake!" or "the penguins must be hungry!") in order to alert a close friend to quietly support you as you remove yourself from a given situation. However, be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry with planned events. Chances are good that they're experiencing the effects of holiday stress and depression, too, but they haven't identified those feelings.
5) Budget. Be a Good Steward of the resources God has provided to you, and stick to a budget you can afford. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then, stick to your budget! Don't try to buy happiness or gratitude with gifts - guilt is always bad credit. Instead, remember the Pearl of Great Price - the genuine article of Love that can only ever be truly given when it is given with no expectation of return. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts, or write a handwritten letter - a personal letter is a precious and rare thing these days!
6) Plan ahead. Scripture consistently reminds us to be prepared - this spiritual practice applies to daily living as well as waiting for Christ (which very much characterizes Advent). Set aside specific days and times for preparations such as shopping, baking, visiting friends, Advent prayers/reading at home and other activities. If you've committed to assisting at church services, be sure to arrive a little early for personal prayer and centering - church isn't just one more "task" to check off at this time of year. Rather, church services and service to others can help keep us grounded and fed by the Season instead of exhausted and depleted by it.
7) Learn to say a holy, healthy "no." Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed later. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no to something, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the given time - set your priorities and stay with them. The spiritual practice of a holy, healthy "no" helps preserve and sustain our best health during a time when God asks us for the gift of our attention - inviting us to be fully present to the in-breaking of the Divine on Earth and within our own hearts.
8) Don't abandon healthy habits. Christmas is a time for celebration but not for reckless abandon - try not to let the Season become an excuse for losing your spiritual mindfulness. Overindulgence only adds to stress and guilt later. So, have a healthy snack before attending holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Use small plates for buffets and servings. Also, continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity, offsetting any extra calories you may choose to take in.
9) Relax. Remember: the song is "God REST Ye, Merry Gentlemen!" Be intentional about scheduling some time for yourself. Spend at least 15 minutes alone every day of Advent as a Mini Sabbath - a sacred time without distractions or agenda; this can refresh you enough to handle what you need to accomplish. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find an image of the Sacred within your inward vision that reduces stress for you - then, clear your mind, slow your breathing, and restore your inner calm.
10) Don't hesitate to seek professional help. Despite your best efforts and best spiritual practices, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical discomfort, unable to sleep, feeling irritable or hopeless - the season may disjoint you completely, causing you to feel unable to face even routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, please talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. You may feel more comfortable initially speaking with a clergy person, such as [*gasp!*] your Pastor. If you would like to speak with me, please be assured that I will help find a referral resource for you for ongoing professional support while maintaining your confidentiality and respecting your privacy.
Ultimately, the most valuable gift we can bring to Christ at Christmastide is ourselves - complete and whole, just as we are - with all our feelings, all our messiness, all our hopes and fears, all our talents and insecurities. We are asked to leave it all at the Manger, in the sure and certain confidence that to God it is all priceless treasure. Even as much as Advent is a time of preparation, it is also a journey of remembrance - timelessly reminding us that we are unconditionally loved by the Christ who is Emanuel, "God with Us." Now, always...and forever.

May you have a truly Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas, 

Experiencing a truly sacred Season of the Spirit.