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.




Ripon–you’ve heard the name on Downton Abbey.  It’s a beautiful, small market city in North Yorkshire, England, and it was my home for four fabulous years.

Walking down Kirkgate toward the cathedral.

I’ve found myself backing up old photos this week, and feeling nostalgic about life in Ripon.  It was ideal.  My children were young and came to believe that they were actually Brits, accent and all.  They attended British school, we spent our days in beautiful environs and living with a decidedly British/European sensability.  We walked to school, to swim lessons, to church, to the grocery store; through rain, through snow, through days of unending summer sun or unending winter dark.    We walked a few blocks out our front door in one direction, and we were in the market square; another direction, and we were in sheep pastures; yet another direction, and we walked the river banks.  We enjoyed Michaelmas and Bonfire Night in the autumn, Candelmas in February, and Shakespeare performances outdoors all summer.

Ripon Market Square, Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Ripon Market Square, Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Ripon Spa, where my children swam, and still largely unchanged a few years ago.
Ripon Spa, where my children swam, and still largely unchanged a few years ago.
Wakeman's House
Wakeman’s House

As a home base, Ripon was lovely.  I think she’s equally engaging for the passer-through too. The market square is the center of town–literally and figuratively–and  Daniel Defoe called it  “the finest and most beautiful square that is to be seen of its kind in England.”  If you go on market day, the space is bustling.  You might enjoy coffee and scones at one corner of the square, in the old Wakeman’s House (which, I hope, still houses a tearoom. . .and possibly a ghost).  The cafe there is fabulous, and the house is a landmark dating back to the 14th century, and once belonging to the last “wakeman” of Ripon.   The wakeman set the town watch at night, meaning that he was the watchman, entrusted to keep the town safe from villians and marauders.

Ripon still observes  the Wakeman’s Ceremony (dating back to 866).  Each night at 9 pm, the town Wakeman strides to the center of the market square (by the obelisk) and blows his horn to let the people know that the night watchman

George Pickles, the Wakeman, photo courtesy of the BBC
George Pickles, the Wakeman, photo courtesy of the BBC

is on duty to keep them safe. Of course, the town’s safety is in the hands of its police these days, but George Pickles, who performed Wakeman duties and set the watch while we lived there (and may still) did a fabulous job keeping the tradition alive and speaking with townspeople and tourists about the history of Ripon.

There is certainly history in abundance on show at the cathedral.  The crypt dates back  to the 7th century, and the cathedral to the 1100’s;  the misericord carvings are said to have inspired Louis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland; and it’s one of the few places on earth that still celebrates Candlemas on February 2nd (thousands of candles, and candles only, light the cathedral to celebrate the purification of Mary, and also the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox–you know this day as Groundhog’s Day!).

Ripon Cathedral
Ripon Cathedral


If you ever find yourself in N. Yorkshire, near Harrogate, give Ripon a look.  The walks are beautiful, the Workhouse Museum and Police Museums are interesting, and the people are fabulous.  For pubs, I recommend The One Eyed Rat and The Water Rat.  For dining, The Royal Oak, Lockwoods, and Balti House (right there on Kirkgate by the cathedral).   I also recommend that you take me with you.  Ahhh, I miss Ripon some days.  .  .


ripon poster