Candlemas, or la Chandeleur in French, is celebrated on the second day of February, forty days after Christmas. Announcing the end of winter, the festival was, for centuries, closely associated with traditions related to purification, fertility, prosperity and light and is popularly known here as le jour des crêpes or Pancake Day.
Candlemas is one of those Christian festivals whose precise origins remain obscure to us today. Many ascribe the establishment of the feast day to the 5th century pope, Gelasius I, but it seems that the celebrations were observed in Jerusalem well over a century before his time. The feast of Candlemas honours the presentation, in the Temple, of the infant Jesus, born forty days earlier on Christmas night, and the purification of the Virgin Mary. Its name is said to derive from the blessed candles that were carried in solemn procession to the church.
In establishing its liturgical year, the early Christian Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the significant seasonal pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Assigning Candlemas to the second of February was likely an attempt to displace the Celtic festival celebrating the end of winter known as Imbolg which was typically held on the first day of the month. Like Candlemas, it too was a feast of purification but also of rebirth and light.
It is believed that for the ancient Celts the year began on 1 November with the festival known as Samhain, which inaugurated the start of winter, while six months later, on 1 May, the feast of Beltane marked the start of summer. Two intermediate festivals, Imbolg (or Imbolc) on 1 February and Lugnasad on 1 August, divided the year into four equal seasons, the middle of which roughly corresponding to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. However, we should not get too fixated on precise dates, especially given the changes wrought by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar that mean we are today almost two weeks ahead of the dates known at the end of Caesar’s reign.
Candlemas heralded the end of winter and thus the beginning of the agrarian season; by February the days are noticeably lengthening and new shoots begin to make an appearance. Its significance is highlighted in many once popular Breton sayings, such as: When Candlemas comes, put away the spinning wheel and take out the plough; At Candlemas, hide the candlesticks and break the distaff; At Candlemas, daylight for all workers, except the tailor and the loafer.
Tradition, rather than history, says that in order to relieve the weary pilgrims arriving in Rome, Pope Gelasius I arranged for them to be comforted with a simple meal of pancakes made from flour and eggs. We will never know the truth of it but it is likely a tale designed to provide a pseudo-historical link between pancakes and Candlemas with the pope once believed to have instituted the festival. Pope Gelasius I did however institute a festival that eventually succeeded in finally suppressing the ancient Roman purification and fertility festival of Lupercalia; displaced by the Feast of Saint Valentine at the end of the 5th century.
It is difficult to say how far back the custom of eating pancakes on Candlemas extends but the practice was noted as traditional here in the 16th century. For centuries, the people of rural France believed that if they did not make pancakes on Candlemas, their wheat would spoil. The pancakes were prepared from the wheat of the previous harvest, which was used in quantity because future harvests were almost in sight now that the agricultural year was restarting. An old Breton proverb notes: Candlemas, the year half-passed, the grain half-consumed.
Abel Hugo, elder brother of noted French author Victor Hugo, wrote in his work, Picturesque France (1835): “At Candlemas, if the peasants did not make pancakes, their wheat would rot. The one who turns his pancake with skill, who does not drop it in the ashes, or who does not catch it in the pan, in the heart-breaking form of some crumpled linen, that one will have happiness – money, this tangible form of happiness – until Candlemas of the following year.”
Readers will not be surprised to learn that a number of other superstitions once surrounded the feast of Candlemas here. Some people believed that in order not to run out of money during the year ahead, it was necessary to bake pancakes at the time of the mass. In eastern Brittany, it was said that to have money all year round, one needed to hold a coin, preferably made of gold, in your left hand, while the first pancake was thrown from the right. This pancake was then carefully wrapped around the coin and carried in procession by all the family to the main bed where it was left until the following year on the top of the closed bed. The remains of last year’s pancake were then recovered and the coin it contained given to the first deserving beggar that called upon the house.
Across Brittany, it was regarded a good omen if the candle, blessed and lit in church, arrived home unextinguished and whoever carried it was believed sure not to die before the next Candlemas. Once home, the candle was carefully stored away; at least until its many virtues were called upon by the household. The Candlemas candle was considered a precious talisman against evil spells; it was re-lit to invoke God’s protection from them and to repel evil spirits. It was also lit to ward off potentially catastrophic lightning strikes during a raging storm. In some areas, it was said that in order to be protected from lightning and all evil spells, it was necessary to turn three times around a stool while holding a lit candle blessed that day.
The power of the candle was also invoked at life’s key moments and was popularly lit to bless first communicants, engaged couples about to be married and people close to death. Sometimes, the candle was even lit in the hope of shortening the suffering of the dying. However, care was taken to ensure that three candles were not lit in the same room as this was said to announce a painful death and foreshadow the three death candles of a wake.
The Candlemas candle was also once held to possess curative powers here; three drops of its wax, dripped into their drinking trough, cured sick animals and a few drops placed on hatching eggs was said to ensure that they all hatched properly.
Candlemas was also a festival devoted to lovers. For unmarried girls, the tradition was to bake six pancakes in a row and to drop them back into the pan to ensure a wedding within the year. Other young ladies, who wanted to know what the future held for them, made a novena in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the night of the last day, the young lady, once asleep, was said to see in a dream the face of her true love and vice versa. Candlemas was also a day that allowed one to forecast the weather; it was said that if the weather is fine on Candlemas, forty days of winter will surely follow.
While candlelit processions are an increasingly rare sight nowadays, other old Candlemas traditions are still observed stronger than ever and in Brittany – the home of the crêpe – you might be hard-pressed to find a family not celebrating the day with a meal of crêpes together. Although, how many of them will remember that in western parts of Brittany, before leaving the house after a meal of pancakes, it was once thought important to eat a small morsel of bread first, otherwise one risked being taken by the mischievous korrigans!
Here in Brittany, two main types of pancake are popularly baked nowadays. The designation crêpe being applied to those made using white flour, eggs, milk and butter, and usually containing a sweet-filling such as salted butter, lemon juice or jam. The term galette is used for heavier pancakes made with buckwheat flour and water, which typically contain a savoury-filling such as cheese, eggs or slices of pork sausage.
To continue the virtual feast, here are a few more images of pancake making through the centuries; with not an electric crêpe maker in sight!