Where is Candlemas celebrated in Dorset?

Hand drawn watercolour illustration of snowdrops

Snowdrops are the traditional flower for Candlemas and are also known as Candlemas Bells - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Combining a pagan festival with a Christian one, Candlemas on February 2 brings together candles, snowdrops and a wary eye on the weather for the year ahead. Jerry Bird reveals some of the Dorset folklore and celebrations surrounding this festival 

Currently, Twelfth Night (January 5) is the date by which Christmas trees and decorations should be disposed of, with a vague threat of ‘bad luck’ if this is not achieved on time. This was the case in Thomas Hardy’s time as his poem Burning the Ivy makes clear. 

But we still burn the holly 

On Twelfth Night; burn the holly 

As people do: the holly 

Ivy and mistletoe. 

This was not always the case, as the Dorset folklorist John Symonds Udal pointed out: ‘Candlemas Day — or Eve — was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holly, mistletoe and evergreens, should be taken down . . . But care should be taken that they are not thrown away as ordinary rubbish, but should be entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some of the household before another year is out.’ 

Engraving of a goblin breaking a cup with a sprig of holly in

If even a single leaf of Christmas greenery was forgotten, the household would be visited by goblins with a tendency to destroy crockery - Credit: The Goblin and the Christmas Holly, engraving by Tom Godfrey

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In some places it was believed that if even a single leaf of greenery was forgotten, the household would be visited by goblins with a tendency to destroy crockery. However, a single sprig of holly left in a cow-shed would protect the cattle. 

Candlemas is February 2, and started as a Christian celebration of the infant Jesus being presented to the Temple, where Simeon called him ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. This probably led to the tradition of candles being brought in procession to the church to be blessed, which gives the celebration its name. Later, as the cult of Mary became popular, the Church instituted the day as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Jewish law, women were regarded as unclean for 40 days after giving birth, and so this day fell conveniently on February 2. 

It was also convenient for being the day after Imbolc, the old Romano-Celtic festival of the goddess Bride, also known as Brid, Brigantia or Bridgid. It is quite possible that Bridport (Brideport in the Domesday Book) and the local rivers Bride and Brit are derived from the goddess’s name. 

Early stone carving of the Romano-Celtic goddess Brigantia

Statue of Brigantia a Romano-Celtic goddess, also known as Bride, Brid and Bridgid - Credit: National Museum of Scotland

Imbolc was a festival of cleansing and purification, as is indicated by the Latin word februa, meaning purifying, which gave the month its name. ‘Imbolc’ is derived from the Old Irish word oimelc, meaning ‘ewe’s milk’, marking the time when pregnant ewes start to lactate. This and the natural phenomenon at the root of Imbolc is the visibly perceptive lengthening of daylight, and thus the anticipation of spring. The Church had a policy of Christianising the old pagan festivals, and so February 1 became St Brigid’s Day, celebrated mostly in Ireland, the Scottish Isles and the Isle of Man. To a degree the two festivals became conflated, Candlemas being regarded as a sort of supplement to St Brigid’s Day in Ireland. 

St Brigid of Kildare was often seen as the patroness of sheep, the pastoral economy and fertility in general. She is believed to have been born in the mid-5th century, and died around AD 525; she was buried at Downpatrick beside St Patrick. Brigid built the first Irish convent beside a giant oak tree, a place which became known as the Church of the Oak (Cill Dara) or Kildare as it is known today. In the hagiographies, she was the daughter of a stubbornly pagan chieftain. Brigid sat praying by his deathbed, and whiled away the time by weaving the first St Brigid's cross from rushes strewn about the floor. Her father, seeing her weaving the cross, asked her to explain its meaning, was overwhelmed, and became a Christian before his death. Brigid’s crosses are still made and hung above doorways on February 1 in Ireland. 

Cross woven from reeds known as Saint Brigid's cross

Saint Brigid's cross woven from reeds, Brigid’s crosses are still made and hung above doorways on February 1 in Ireland - Credit: Culnacreann/Wiki Commons

In the Middle Ages, religion and magic often mingled, and the candles, once blessed, were highly prized as protection charms against misfortune and illness. Part of the blessing itself (this one from a Mass book of 1554) sounds rather like a magic spell: 

O Lord Jesu Christ, I-blesse thou this creature of a waxen taper at our humble supplication, and by the virtue of the holy crosse, pour thou into it an heavenly benediction; that as thou hast graunted it unto man’s use for the expelling of darkness, it may receave such a strength and blessing, thorow the token of the holy crosse, that in what places soever it be lighted or set, the Devil may avoid out of those habitacions, and tremble for feare, and fly away discouraged, and presume no more to unquiet them that serve thee. 

At the Reformation, Protestant ministers argued that as Mary was a virgin, and therefore ‘pure’, no purification was required. Also, inevitably, they considered the blessing or sanctification of candles to be a superstitious act which was turning congregations away from the ‘true religion’. Candlemas was abolished in 1559, but continued as a secular celebration. 

William Hone mentioned a Dorset gentleman having communicated a custom which he had witnessed at Lyme Regis in the late 18th century: 

The wood-ashes of the family being sold (for lime fertiliser) throughout the year as they were made, the person who purchased them annually sent a present on Candlemas-day of a large candle. When night came the candle was lighted, and, assisted by its illumination, the inmates regaled themselves with cheering draughts of ale and sippings of punch, or some other animating beverage, until the candle had burnt out. The coming of the Candlemas candle was looked forward to by the young ones as an event of some consequence; for, of usage, they had a sort of right to sit up that night and partake of the refreshment till all retired to rest, the signal for which was the self-extinction of the Candlemas candle. 

During such celebrations it was customary to have a bowl of snowdrops (known as ‘Candlemas Bells’, and ‘Mary’s Tapers’) on the table. 

Click here to find snowdrops walks and displays in Dorset 

Snowdrops against a blue sky

Snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is a wealth of weather-lore concerning Candlemas, on which date fine weather was regarded as a portent of worse weather to come. Udal quotes the following rhythmical proverbs in his book Dorsetshire Folk-lore

If Candlemas Day is a fine day, winter is to come; 

if it’s a middling day, winter is half over; 

if it’s a very rough day, winter is past. 

If Candlemas Day be Fair and Fine, 

Half the winter is left behin’. 

If Candlemas Day do bluster and blow, 

The winter is o’er as all good people do know. 

Of all the months that are in the year 

Curse a fair Februeer. 

Another saying was ‘As much ground as the sun shines on Candlemas Day will be covered with snow before Lady Day’ (March 25). 

A contributor to Notes & Queries in 1872 wrote: ‘In Dorsetshire people look anxiously for the dew-drops hanging thickly on the thorn-bushes on Candlemas morning. When they do, it forbodes a good year for peas.’ Over the border in Somerset, the day marked the time to start planting beans. 

Dove shape outlined in candles in the dark of a cathedral in Ripon

Ripon Cathedral Candlemas 2021 service - Credit: Joe Priestly/riponcathedral.org.uk

Imbolc has been celebrated since at least the mid-20th century by modern-day witches, druids and pagans. Candlemas has, to a degree, been revived in many parishes since the rise of the Victorian Anglo-Catholic movement. In Ripon Cathedral, where the rogue Bishop clandestinely held the banned service in 1790, Candlemas is now celebrated openly with displays of anything up to 6000 candles. St Peter’s church in Dorchester now holds an annual Candlemas service, and Wimborne Minster has also revived the processional aspect of the celebration.

Vicar in gold robes by a holy spring

The Reverend Jonathan Still passing through the St Brigid's girdle, at St Augustine's Well in Cerne Abbas during Candlemas 2020 - Credit: Jane Still

In Cerne Abbas, participants decorate the Silver Well  (also known as St Augustine's Well), plant snowdrops around it, and pass through a St Brigid’s girdle, woven from reeds and symbolic of purification and rebirth.