Category Archives: Candlemas

Custom survived: Snowdrop candlemas folklore


Original Vintage Print 1995 by Cicely Mary Barker.  The image 1

‘The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,

First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.

While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’ 

Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanac (1824) Dr Thomas Forster

Nothing preludes the end of the cold winter months like the small white nodding heads of the snowdrop. Said to have been introduced to England by Italian monks in the 15th century or as early as the Roman occupation.  it has forever more been associated with the celebration of Candlemas or Imbolc and thus called the ‘Fair Maid of February’, ‘Mary’s tapers’ their Latin name Galanthus nivalis translates as ‘Milkflower of the snow’ and in Welsh it is called ‘Eirlys’ the ‘Snow Lilly.’ The Scottish poet George Wilson in his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’:

“And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ;

Their blooming at Candlemas meant they were known as ‘Candlemas bells’.  One name Eve’s tear derives from a German folktale relating to Adam & Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden. Here they encounter the for the first time and here an Angel tells them that Eden is no longer and tearful they wander off. It is said that the Angel felt sorry for them and so taking snow into the hand and breathing upon it makes the first snowdrops and says

“Take these little flowers as a sign of hope. A sign for your kind and for the earth outside.”

Such begins the flowers tradition of being a harbinger of better days ahead. However, another piece of folklore associates them with doom and gloom. The association of snowdrops with graveyards meant they developed an association with death. It is thought that the Victorians actively planted snowdrops on graves. Vivian A Rich in their 1998), Cursing the Basil: And Other Folklore of the Garden  that it:

“was considered the epitome of good taste to edge the grave in blue scillars with snowdrops planted on the grave”

According to Roy Vickery’s 1984 Unlucky plants:

“it has been suggested that the association of snowdrops with death results from the flower’s resemblance to a shroud”

Rich continues to add that the resemblance to a shroud even meant just touching a snowdrop was bad luck; such that people will still never take snowdrops into houses or indeed hospitals. The Victorians believed that death will occur in the family within the year. As xx notes:

“Many cling to and practice this superstition still claiming resolutely that a plucked snowdrop brought upon their threshold was the reason they were widowed.”

Alternatively, Margaret Baker in her 2011 Discovering the Folklore of Plants that people in Herefordshire and Shropshire did bring them in for cleanse the house although did note that if brought in when hen’s were laying would stop them. Similarly, it was also said the snowdrops in the house would spoil eggs and turn milk sour.

Katherine Briggs in her 1974 Folklore of the Cotswolds states that an exception was made for Candlemas itself when snowdrops could be brought inside being blessed by the virgin that day.

Custom demised: Bradford’s St Blaise’s Day processions


See the source image

Hone in his Book of Days discussed the importance of St Blaise’s Day to the Yorkshire city of Bradford he states:

“The large flourishing communities engaged in this business in Bradford, and other English towns, are accustomed to hold a septennial jubilee on the 3rd of February, in honour of Jason of the Golden Fleece and St. Blaize; and not many years ago the fête was conducted with considerable state and ceremony.”.

The author continues to report the procession as in 1825:

“Herald bearing a flag, Woolstaplers on horseback, each horse caparisoned with a fleece. Worsted Spinners and manufacturers_ on horseback, in white stuff waistcoats, with each a sliver over the shoulder, and a white stuff sash; the horses’ necks covered with nets made of thick yarn. Merchants_ on horseback, with coloured sashes.

Three guards. Masters’ Colours. Three guards. Apprentices and Masters’ Sons_, on horseback, with ornamented caps, scarlet stuff coats, white stuff waistcoats, and blue pantaloons.

Bradford and Keighley Bands. Mace-bearer, on foot. Six guards. King. Queen. Six guards. Guards. Jason. Princess Medea. Guards. Bishop’s Chaplain. Bishop Blase. Shepherd and Shepherdess. Shepherd Swains. Woolsorters, on horseback, with ornamented caps, and various coloured slivers. Comb Makers. Charcoal Burners. Combers’ Colours. Band. Woolcombers_ with wool wigs, &c.  Band. Dyers, with red cockades, blue aprons, and crossed slivers of red and blue.”

Before the procession started it was addressed by Richard Fawcett, Esq., in the following lines:

“Hail to the day, whose kind auspicious rays Deign’d first to smile on famous Bishop Blase! To the great author of our Combing trade, This day’s devoted, and due honour’s paid, To him whose fame thro’ Britain’s isle resounds, To him whose goodness to the poor abounds. Long shall his name in British annals shine. And grateful ages offer at his shrine! By this our trade are thousands daily fed, By it supplied with means to earn their bread. In various forms our trade its work impart, In different methods, and by different arts: 

Preserves from starving indigents distress’d, As Combers, Spinners, Weavers, and the rest. We boast no gems, or costly garments vain,  Borrow’d from India or the coast of Spain; Our native soil with wool our trade supplies, While foreign countries envy us the prize. No foreign broil our common good annoys, Our country’s product all our art employs; Our fleecy flocks abound in every vale, Our bleating lambs proclaim the joyful tale. So let not Spain with us attempt to vie,  Nor India’s wealth pretend to soar so high; Nor Jason pride him in his Colchian spoil, By hardships gain’d, and enterprising toil; Since Britons all with ease attain the prize, And every hill resounds with golden crie, To celebrate our founder’s great renown. Our shepherd and our shepherdess we crown, For England’s commerce and for George’s sway Each loyal subject give a loud Huzza.   Huzza!”

There was apparently a town-wide celebrations in 1804, 1811, 1818 and 1825 as recorded above and by a Bradford Dr John Simpson who wrote about:

“by different individuals connected with the trade of the place’ and that Bradford ‘may expect a great influx of strangers, indeed great numbers have arrived today’. His diary entry for the 3rd February, Saint Blaise’s Day, recorded how there had been ‘wind. . . snow and rain’ overnight but it had cleared by morning – ‘the morning was beautiful . . . it seemed as of the weather had taken up purposely for the celebration of the Blaise’.

This apparently was the first festival although there were apparently a smaller scale event in 1857 and 1930 and then no more! However, there is a campaign for a revival of sorts. Local poet and writer Glyn Watkins has campaigned to revive the festival through a series of walks, talks and events in Bradford combined with one year with a Bring Back Blaise Wool Festival at Bradford Industrial Museum. But so far it has not encouraged a real civic ceremony being revived.

Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights



“having visited Harrowgate for his health a few years before, he resided for some time at that pleasant market town Ripon, where, on the Sunday before Candlemas day, he observed that the collegiate church, a fine ancient building, was one continued blaze of light all the afternoon from an immense number of candles.”

So wrote a 1790 account in the Gentlemen’s magasine. Yet despite this note reference to this rare survival is no existent. Candlemas is a curious feast which went through a revival in the mid-20th century in a number of churches. The feast celebrates the Presentation of the Infant Christ to the Temple, and traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season (and when the Christmas decoration could be removed). As a custom it is a very curious hybrid of Hebrew – in the remembrance of the tradition of presenting children to the temple and pagan sitting as it does upon the old pre-Christian Imbolc, the coming of spring. The name Candlemas is of course itself rather odd. Most other masses relate to saints or biblical events – this does not.

En-lightening origin

In those dark days of winter, the lighting of candles marked the beginning of the days getting lighter and the rise of spring and the strength of the sun. All pure paganism. At some point the Christians adopted this ancient event and looking at the timing associated it with presentation, a facet still remembered in Blidworth with its unique cradle rocking. The association with candles was convenient as Christ was seen as ‘the way and the light’ and as candles were such a valuable commodity against the evils of darkness the needed to be blessed and be thankful – hence a mass for candles. As the tide turned against such curious Catholic practices at the Reformation, many died out. It survived Henry VIIIth’s purge, but was reformed the blessing of candles was thrown out and so was the Mary’s role focusing on Jesus solely. The custom continued until the late 1700s and as Hutton notes had died out by the 1800s. It is not surprising the North clung onto Catholic traditions longer than elsewhere finally dying out and being revived in the 20th century.


Candle in the wind

A description by Dean John of the church records on the church website sums it up perfectly:

“Many of you will know that here at Ripon Cathedral the Candlemas Sung Eucharist has long been established as one of the most spectacular services of the year. The light from five thousand candles, the glorious music, and several hundred people gathering from across the region all combine, with the grace of God, to make this a great occasion of celebration and spiritual encounter.”

5000 candles surely that must be a record? Where as many churches and cathedrals now mark Candlemas none do it in a way as spectacular and uplifting as Ripon. As one enters the cathedral on the night one’s senses are assailed. Cathedrals in the night are dark, gloomy, foreboding places. The chill runs down the spine…especially on those cold snow laden February nights. As one enters from the crisp air, one enters a glowing magical place of warm both physical and spiritual. There’s the smell of wax and the hushed sounds which only can be heard in some august edifices.


The full wax

A few years ago when the 2nd arose on the weekend I made my way to the service to see this great festival of lights. Throughout the service all modern forms of lighting are vanquished and only that of the flickering candle. Throughout the whole building there appear to be candles, hither and thither, placed feverishly earlier by the church’s vergers and lit equally efficiently no doubt.

The triumph of their work is a giant cross arranged in the chancel with the date arranged in candles, fortunately roped off though but easily observed. The service is of course a traditional one of Evensong, but during it the congregation is invited to process around the Cathedral holding their candles lead by the Bishop. This was a magical moment as we processed around remembering the importance of this great building to the spiritual needs of its community and how it had sat as safe refuge from Saxon times and beyond. There also is something quite magical about the sound of evensong sung under the dimness of a candle. Indeed, Ripon’s Candlemas service can give us a real insight into what the pre-Reformation church would have been like. A mysterious evocative dark world lit only by the candle.

Customs revived: the Blidworth Baby rocking


 “Twas in a cradle, decked and graced, With flowers and antique ornament Mothers and their infant children placed.And up the hill to church they went,From Fishpool cots they duly came.From Blidworth and Fountain Dale;And the good folk did just the same who lived in Blidworth in the vale.Many such good rocking’s there have been, In the old church the good loved well,Which sanctifies the expanding scene within the sound of Blidworth bell”

The Church of St. Mary of the Purification is a rather uninspiring edifice from the outside, very modern, it was rebuilt in (the remains of the original church lie close by) but it is associated with a ceremony, unique in England. Go inside and on the back wall are two boards with names inscribed ‘cradle rockings’ with dates and a pulpit with a cradle carved on it. These may appear appear strange but this is a church proud of its revived tradition. For on the Sunday nearest the 2nd of February, Candlemass and the Feast of the Purification of Mary, a baby boy who must be born nearest to Christmas, as well as being born to married, Christian parents living in Blidworth (or now nearby), is “rocked” in a cradle.

According to one of its earliest accounts in Notes and Queries of 1926, the ceremony dates from 1200. However, the earliest reference appears to be a rather unfortunate one.   It is recorded in Blidworth burial register:

“Thomas Leake esquire, 11 February AD. 1599, killed at Blidworth Rocking”

At first hand before concerns set in, this was not a boy thrown by too much enthusiastic rocking. For the rest of the entry reads:

“two days before aged sixty years after a brawl”

For there are two traditions strictly speaking rolled into one here! The surviving cradle rocking and like many feast days, the actually partying part! For many years there was a feast day which coincided with this ceremony. People from Derbyshire and Yorkshire attended and it was often a time for family reunions.

It appears to have been a time of sports such as in 1758 according to Old Nottingham a man called Bullcalf brought a team of Derby wrestlers to compete with a Nottingham side. Nottingham won! To return back to Leake, he was killed in a duel. A captain Salmon of Salterford being on leave to go to the village feast encountered Tom Leake who was a Forest Ranger, and they soon argued in the Archer’s tavern over the Landlords daughter and Leake lost the ensuing sword fight….such incidents may have precipitated both the end of the feast and the ceremony. It appears to have been getting a little out of hand around the nineteenth century.  a report from the Daily Express of the 26th Feb of 1915 recorded police arrests of drunkenness on the day clearly indicating that ‘Rocking Sunday’ as it was called was still celebrated in public houses, although by then the actual rocking had fallen into abeyance.

Indeed we do not hear about the Rockings until it was revived in 1842 after a lapse of 150 years. It soon lapsed and, its final revival was in 1921, when Revd John Lowndes discovered an accord by the Revd Whitworth “there was a beautiful custom in Blidworth church called the Rocking ceremony” written in 1896. He thus thought it was a good idea to revive it and asking around found a Eliza Pointon of Fairlight Cottages who had an ancient cradle which she donated. The earliest report I could find is Notes and Queries 1926 states that the inclement weather had prevented the carrying of the cradle from the church. In this first report:

“The revd John Lowndes officiated and this rocking was the fifth that he has conducted, he having revived the custom, which had been started in 1200 and discontinued a century ago”

Although the report is possibly factually inaccurate this part. It does go on to state that the Bishop of Grantham was present and that the child was named Samuel. A report in 1936:

“In the picturesque village church at Blidworth, the usual annual crowd assembled at Candlemass to witness the medieval customs of ‘rocking the baby’as an act symbolical of the presentation of the Child Christ, in the Temple. The last baptised baby boy in the parish is taken by its parents to the church at Evensong and during the service, the baby is presented by the priest at the altar and dedicated to the service of God. The Vicar Rev. W.T.C. Swingler, placed the baby in a century old cradle, decorated with snowdrops, narcissi and foliage, within the altar rails, and rocked the cradle to and fro several times.”

A report on the 12th February 1938 recorded:

“The baby was John Ramond Bennett, the only child of Mr and Mrs John Bennett, of White Lion..both natives of Blidworth…..Taking the baby to the altar which was decorated with snowdrops and white tulips, the vicar said ‘John Redmond I present you at this altar. Turning to the congregation he pronounced may he grow never to be ashamed to confess the cross of Christ… manly to fight under his banner to fight sin, the world and the devil and to continue as a faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end”         …

The vicar then rocked the baby in a cradle also decorated with snowdrops, immediately in front of the altar”

In the Bulwell dispatch from 1963 a report read:

“Dating back to the middle ages, the annual rocking ceremony took place at St. Mary’s Church Blidworth on Sunday night in the presence of a large congregation. The custom is for the last baptised baby in the parish to be rocked before the altar in an old wooden cradle symbolising the presentation of the boy Jesus at the Temple. Four week old David John Mason, whose parents have been the newsagent’s shop in Mansfield Road, Blidworth was selected for this year’s rocking ceremony. He slept peacefully throughout the service. The baby’s parents, Mr and Mrs. Stuart Mason, knelt beside the flower decked cradle with the provost of Southwell (the very Rev H. C. L. Heywood) during the ceremony. The service was conducted by the rev J. W. Busby (vicar of Blidworth) and the address was given by the provost who spoke of the importance of family life. Snowdrops and violets have decorated the cradle for the last seven years, but this year it was impossible to obtain these flowers, even at Covent Garden, owing to the severe winter. Instead white carnations and blue hyacinths were used.”

A report of 1967 Guardian Journal notes:

“There was a packed congregation – extra chairs were placed in the aisles-at Blidworth parish church yesterday for the annual Rocking Ceremony, a custom dating back to the Middle Ages. The latest Baptised boy in the parish, four week old Michael Anthony Griffith was blessed before the altar by the vicar, the Rev J. W. Busby, and then placed in a century old cradle and gently rocked. The Archdeacon of Newark the Ven Brian Woodham also took part. The baby the first child of Mr. and Mrs. James Griffith of 53 Preston road Rainworth was well behaved until the closing stages of the service when he burst out crying. A tape recording was made of the intercessions for the vicar who, after 11 years in Blidworth is leaving for a Lincolnshire benefice in March”

The Bishop of Southwell Denis Wakeling performed the rocking in 1980 and the child Edward William Tristram received a commemorative bible to mark the occasion inscribed by the Bishop.

It is interesting to note that the accounts given here and what I saw in 2009 are not wildly dissimilar. It is pleasing to note that the cradle is that found by Eliza Pointon and the order is much the same In 2009, the tradition was much as described above except the church had considerable difficulty finding a suitable boy, although girls were available, and a boy was finally found in Mansfield I believe but the cradle was duly rocked as described and the congregation held long candles to remember candlemas.

Rock a bye baby – the function of the rocking

The 2nd of February is Candlemas associated with the presentation of the baby Christ at the altar. In pre-Reformation England, mass at this time would have included the rocking of a cradle in the service as a visual aid for the largely illiterate congregation. It is possible that the baby rocking replaced the idea of Doves being sacrificed as in The gospel of Luke when Joseph and Mary went to the temple for Mary’s ritual purification and to perform the redemption of the first born, by giving a poor sacrifice of two doves.

Little appears to be recorded about this tradition countrywide but it is thought to have died out at the reformation. Blidworth’s church of the purification is the only church in England which undertakes this unique tradition on the Sunday nearest to the date.  However, some authorities linked the tradition with St Distaff’s day and ‘rocking’ appears to have taken to a wider context especially as it is reported that much celebrations occurred after the service with the baby processed around the town.

Whatever the origins if you are around in February in Nottinghamshire it is worth witnessing this truly unique custom.