Candlemas is the English name for a Christian feast also known as the Presentation of Christ, the Purification of the Virgin, and the Meeting of the Lord. It is kept on February 2nd, forty days after Christmas.
CANDLEMAS is the English name for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, acknowledging the ancient custom of distributing lighted candles to churchgoers on that day.*
Forty days after his birth, Jesus was taken by his parents to the Temple in Jerusalem as Jewish law commanded. All firstborn males were Temple property until redeemed for the price of a sacrificial lamb (or two turtle doves for the poor),** and a new mother must be declared fit to return to normal life by the priests.
The lighted candles recall the words of Simeon, an elderly Jewish prophet who took Jesus in his arms and proclaimed him ‘a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of Israel’.
When Egeria visited Jerusalem in the 380s, she found the feast was already being kept there, but it became more widespread after 541 when public prayers and processions at Candlemas brought relief from a bitter famine afflicting Constantinople, the Imperial capital.
* The tradition is mentioned by Elfric, Abbot of Eynsham, writing in the late 10th century during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. “Be it known also to everyone that it is appointed in the ecclesiastical observances, that we on this day bear our lights to church, and let them there be blessed”. See his ‘Sermon on the Purification of the Virgin Mary’.
** The poor could offer two turtle doves or two young pigeons instead of the much more expensive lamb. St Luke stresses that Joseph and Mary came into that category.