The Return of Light: Candlemas

Once again, the season has brought us round to Candlemas– an ancient tradition still observed in a handful of places.  One of those places is Ripon, North Yorkshire, England, which I called home for a brief but beautiful few years.  I’m re-posting this short post from 2017, so  I might share the tradition with you and wish you a thousand candles to light your way and warm your heart through this winter week.

Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter
Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter

The winter-blooming snowdrops may be pushing up from the cold ground in England about now, and we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the March equinox.  Light is returning to the world, and slowly but surely we turn toward spring.

And the religious calendar turns also.  There are few places in the world where Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd– Americans are far likelier to think of today as Groundhog Day (same principle, though)– but the Ripon Cathedral is one of those glorious places where the holiday is remembered.  The cathedral is lit with thousands of candles, and candles only,  and a  processional service takes place in the evening.

Our first visit to a Candlemas service took place in 2005 or 2006.  Our children were very young, and we took them in their pajamas (it was a cold mid-winter’s night, they were young, we saw no need to stand on ceremony).  Our friend, a canon at the cathedral, had called us at the last minute and said, “You really ought to see this, it’s beautiful and will be a new experience for you.”  We’d imagined that we’d just pop our heads in, satisfy a curiosity, and leave quickly to get the children into bed.

But, like Homer’s lotus eaters, we stepped into the space and it was such a fantastic and pleasurable experience that we forgot to leave!  We stayed for the procession, we moved dreamily through the ancient, light-filled space and, although I’d like to tell you just how it felt and how it lifted our spirits, my words fall short.  To be in that ancient space, with the thousands of candles at once warming, lighting, and flickering along the walls  (seeming, in their dancing flames, to sing and process along with the parishioners), to process through that space with a sea of people (young and old, high and low, well-dressed and pajama-ed)– this was so moving and uplifting.

This morning, I’m starting my day off in sunny Florida.  It is no bleak mid-winter day outside.  The light never really left us this winter–certainly not by northern or European measures.  But the need for a turning and a renewal is as strong as ever.

Tonight, I will put on my cozy pajamas, I will light some candles at home, and I will drift off to Ripon Cathedral, lotus-eater like.  I will process through the nave and side aisle, pause by niches, hold my young children tight, marvel at the warmth and the glow and the sea of my fellow revelers.  I’ll be there.  Not even the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could keep me away.



20 thoughts on “The Return of Light: Candlemas

  1. Candlemas rings some kind of literary bell, but I had no idea what/when it was. How nice there’s something to celebrate tonight! I shall light candles too 🙂

  2. Thank you for this. As you know I live near Ripon, and I’d only this year found out about this service. I was determined to go, but sadly, it falls this evening and I can’t. Your description makes me determined to keep the day free next year!

    1. I’m so sorry you had to miss it. You really should mark your calendar for next year– it’s beautiful. A fantastic experience. (Also, if you haven’t made it to a lessons and carols service in Ripon during Advent, that is also a “not to be missed” experience.) Thanks for reading, and give my regards to your beautiful corner of Yorkshire!

      1. Of course – with pleasure. And I’ve already vowed to get Candlemas into next year’s diary. Nine Lessons and Carols is already a fixture. As is the Watchnight service on New Year’s Eve.

    1. I’m sure. Whenever I’m lived in northern states and countries, I’ve found that the winter cold didn’t bother me as much as the dearth of light. And, funny, I wouldn’t really notice how slow and foggy the dark made me until March or April–as the light first began returning, I’d realize how much happier and more energetic I started feeling!
      As always, thanks for reading and commenting, Peter. I hope the light starts shining brightly for you!

      1. When it comes to the sunlight, we are like plants. We cannot thrive without it. Some are more sensitive than other. There is also the light that some people radiate with their cheerful personality. They bring sunshine into our hearts, and we miss the sunshine not quite as much, when we are in their midst.

    1. Thanks for reading! The photo is beautiful– I take no credit, it’s borrowed from the Ripon Cathedral Twitter feed, but it really gives you a sense of the beauty of the cathedral in candlelight. Totally enchanting.

    1. Thanks. Photo credit goes to the Ripon Cathedral (I wish I was that talented with a camera, or had access to that bird’s eye view!)– but it certainly captures the beauty of the night well.

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