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.



Candlemas and Groundhog Day–a belated primer

You and I tend to know February 2nd as Groundhog Day, candlemas riponbut it’s been a festival day for a long time, and its roots go back deep into the calendar of the Christian church, and far deeper still.  The day marks the midpoint between  the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it’s considered the beginning of spring, or at least (if you live where it is still remarkably cold, like I do) the tipping point where winter and dark begin making way for warmth and light.

Candlemas is rarely observed in the church these days, but our old hometown of Ripon, England still honors the day.  The cathedral hosts a Candlemas service in the evening, and the cathedral is lit by thousands of candles.  To clarify–it is lit by thousands of candles only.  It is brillliant.  The first time I walked into one of these services, my children in their winter pajamas (they were young, and it was late and cold out), we all gasped and immediately whispered “Harry Potter!”   This is the best way I know to describe the look of the cathedral to a Candlemas novice or a wizard fan–think of Hogwarts’ great hall and its floating candles.  In Ripon Cathedral, the thousands of candles are set around the edges of the ground, in the clerestory ledges, and in every shelf and cubby along those ancient stone walls.  They appear to float and rise.  It’s heady stuff, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

candlemas 2The Ripon Cathedral website posted the following blurb about Candlemas last year:

Candlemas is one of the most ancient feasts of the Church, and occurs 40 days after Christmas, on the 2nd February. It is also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, in reference to the episode in Luke’s gospel (2:22-40).
This ancient festival has been celebrated at Ripon for centuries. A visitor to the Cathedral in 1790 declared that the whole building was “one continued blaze of light all afternoon”.
This year, the Cathedral will once again shine with the light of thousands of candles, symbolising Jesus as the light of the world.

It’s good to know that, dark and cold as it still is (whether we are speaking of the weather and season, or of world events), we can look to a tipping point and the hope of spring.   (Even if Punxsutawney Phil is right and the next few weeks will be chill, spring must come some day.)  It is also good to know that, in a world of cultural globalization, where McDonalds is edging its way into every corner, you can still stumble on those few enclaves where something ancient, unusual, and beautiful will make you catch your breath. . . even if you find yourself whispering “Harry Potter” in the aftermath.