Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/4 posted by hidden europe on

Today is Candlemas Eve, definitively marking the end of the Christmas season in western Europe. Modern custom in secular Europe is often to dismantle Christmas decorations well before the Epiphany, but in many churches across the continent cribs and Christmas trees remain in place until just before Candlemas, the feast which falls tomorrow (2 February). The start of February is a time of the year mightily infused with superstition, and on our travels around Europe we have been struck by how persistent such folk-beliefs are. Some are rooted in religion, others less so.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Today is Candlemas Eve, definitively marking the end of the Christmas season in western Europe. Modern custom in secular Europe is often to dismantle Christmas decorations well before the Epiphany, but in many churches across the continent cribs and Christmas trees remain in place until just before Candlemas, the feast which falls tomorrow (2 February).

The start of February is a time of the year mightily infused with superstition, and on our travels around Europe we have been struck by how persistent such folk-beliefs are. Some are rooted in religion, others less so. Rituals of purification are the hallmark of the start of February, many of them (consciously or otherwise) influenced by the Judeo-Christian notion of observing a period of forty days after the birth of a child prior to re-engaging more fully with the world. Antiquity was evidently less generous with maternity benefits than the modern world.

Many commentators on these matters argue that European purification rituals associated with the start of February long predate the Judeo-Christian tradition and have their origins in pagan festivals. So in Ireland we have encountered celebrations of Imbolc on Candlemas Eve or Candlemas Day - all a matter of snowdrops and the blessing of wells as far as we can discern. This pagan festival has apparently been overlain by a Christian veneer since the first day of February is also the feast of St Brigid, a saint much associated with the blessing of wells.

But we always cast a nod in the direction of St Brigid on this day, not because our well needs blessing, but for another reason. Some suggest that she is the patron saint of writers. Many Londoners will know St Bride's Church (the name is a corruption of Brigid) in Fleet Street, which claims to be the spiritual home of journalists. Some readers might be surprised to find that journalists have any spiritual home.

So, back to the matter of those Christmas decorations, which Robert Herrick (1591-1674) reminds us must be cleared away by sunset this afternoon:

"Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall."

If every last twig and berry is not cleared from the church tonight, Heaven only knows what fate might befall the community. In Herrick's day, folk genuinely believed that any fragment of Christmas holly left in a pew at Candlemas would bode ill for whichever family occupied that particular church pew. Robert Chamber's Book of Days (published as late as 1864) advised that even one stray berry or leaf would mean the death of a member of the family.

In ports across Europe, there is a belief among many mariners that setting sail on Candlemas Day is tempting fate, so many ships will remain firmly at anchor tomorrow. Thus we thought it an interesting deference to tradition when we read this morning that Brittany Ferries has cancelled its sailings from Spain to England tomorrow. But when we contacted the company, it transpired that storms forecast for the Bay of Biscay were more to blame than good old-fashioned superstition.

Yet this weekend will show that superstition still plays a major role in European life. Millions of Europeans, many of them folk who otherwise rarely go to church, will on Sunday queue to receive the Blessing of St Blaise. This consecration of throats with distinctive crossed candles is said to ward off infections. There are those who argue that a flu jab in autumn is a more reliable precaution, but that won't stop the crowds turning out on Sunday to mark the Feast of St Blaise.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.