Tag Archives: Candlemas

Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Custom demised: Carlow’s dole, Woodbridge

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Candlemas is often associated with charities especially doles. Whilst most of these appear to have died out around 100 years ago, one survived until recently and indeed may soon return. This is Carlow’s Dole. Carlow’s Dole is also one of those customs which is repeatedly referred to it folk custom almanacs and now online lists as a surviving custom – however that is far from the truth. Even Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 school resource British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide state:

“a dozen loaves are still distributed each Candlemas by the rector and churchwardens of St. Mary’s parish church.”

What makes the charity stand out is the nature of bizarre distribution and the origins of its founder.

George Carlow was a member of a religious sect long extinct called the Separate Congregation who’s chief belief was keeping Saturday sacred it seems. Being not accepted for burial in the church or chapel, he therefore was interred in his own private tomb in his garden. As the year’s passed this garden became the property of the Bull Hotel. Arthur Mee (1939) in his Suffolk notes:

“…we come upon the tiny walled garden of the Bull Hotel, the old coaching inn on Market Hill where Tennyson stayed… Through the hotel yard we come to the grave of George Carlow, who owned the inn in 1738, when he died and was buried here. He left the inn a small charity to distribute bread each year to the poor, and the bread is still distributed at his grave.”

The will stipulated that whosoever lived in his house paid for the loaves. As the Bull Hotel’s annex covered this property for many years they took responsibility for the tomb’s upkeep and helped with the charity. Homer Sykes (1975) who chose the custom to feature in his excellent Only Once a Year notes that the hotel had a room called Carlow’s and that those involved would be served sherry by the hotel. Landlord Neville Allen noted in Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Britain:

“we mark it some years with children coming from one of the local schools to get rolls which we have baked. Of course, they’re not that poor nowadays but it’s very educational.”

The some years is a clue of how the custom appeared to die out but not the full story which I will explain in a moment. What makes this dole so interesting is the tomb of course on which is inscribed:

“Weep for me dear friend no more for I am gone a little before. But by a lite of pity prepare yourself to follow me. Good friends for Jesus sake forbear. To move the dust entombed here. Blessed be he that spares these stones. Cursed be he that moves my bones.”

Now Mr. Carlow being not associated with a church realised he would not be able to display his bequest on a Charity board as many others still do and did, so he also cleverly had the instructions carved also into his tomb:

“Twenty shillings worth of bread to be given on this stone to the poor of the town on the second of February forever.”

These loaves were purchased from the two poorest bakers in the town for the town’s poor, by doing so helping both parts of the community. Interestingly, St. Mary’s Church were charged with organising this distribution being done by the verger and two church wardens.

Interestingly, unlike other customs which clearly don’t pay for themselves, Carlow’s dole was not subsidised. Sykes (1975) notes in 1975:

“At present, since loaves cost more than two pence, only twelve loaves are purchased and distributed…”

Malcolm Taylor, Doc Rowe and Carolyn Robson’s 2014 British Folk Customs From Plough Monday to Hocktide also astutely note:

“whereas once 20/- (£1) would have provided the 120 ‘two-penny loaves’ originally intended, today it would buy but one large loaf.”

Interestingly Sykes appears to show the dole being given to elderly people but by Brian Sheul’s (1983) time in the 1980s it was children.

The dole was clearly also an attempt at sin eating where the sins of the incumbent would be passed onto the living. This was done by eating food off the grave. This is still enacted at Butterworth’s Dole at Smithfield’s London and of course is one of the concepts behind the Wake. Of course within recent times of the dole it was more hygienically distributed on a table near the tomb.

Carlow’s Grave, Woodbridge where the dole should have been distributed. Copyright Richard Wisbey Flikr

Forever?

As stated Carlow’s dole is often described as being still extant but it sadly has now become lost. Why? The reason is rather pathetic to be honest – and that is not meant to be a criticism of St. Mary’s – but the owners of the land in which the tomb is enclosed. For although it is often noted that the tomb is in the Bull Hotel garden this is no longer true. Houses were built on land adjacent to the Hotel and the tomb was incorporated into one of the house’s private gardens. According to the Rector Canon Kevan McCormack access was prevented by the owner of the land but this appears to have arisen from a dispute regarding who owned the small piece of land, a dispute which had apparently been going on for several years. Promisingly he noted that the previous owners believed that if it was resolved there would be no problem reinstating the tradition. The owners were very gracious to Richie Wisbey who managed to get access and take a recent photo of the grave now overgrown in the garden. Back in 2012 I was told:

“A brief response is that we ceased a few years ago from giving out bread at the tomb, because the owner of the land where the tomb is would not allow us to do it.  However, there has now developed a dispute as to who owns this small piece of land and if this is resolved it may be possible to reinstate this next year.”

2013 I was told:

Sadly this dispute has been going on for several years and we just have to wait.”

2016 and I think we are still waiting. A shame that such a dispute could stop the custom and we hope that it either has now been revived or will be soon.

Custom demised: Taking down Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve

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What? Surely it’s Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day. Indeed, whilst that debate rages about….and some people take them down on Boxing Day I hear. But the real debate is Twelfth Night or Candlemas?.

This debate certainly is quite germane with me, who sits here, composing this post on the 25th January in the shadow of a fully decorated Christmas tree! Why I’ll explain in a minute. However, when discussing the fact I still had the tree up on Plough Monday, Frank a folklorist and local Historian said ‘You’ll get back luck then’ to which I replied with the following fact from what I had discovered researching customs, that Christmas decorations were to be burnt at Candlemas north of the Trent of Nottingham, where it is said that candles must be thrown away.

He was apparently unaware of the custom, but delving into an array of customs it appears that the Northerners were not the only ones exempt! Further research suggests that it is a custom which has waxed and then waned over the centuries to such a point that no-one would be aware of it largely. Certainly in the 17th century the custom prevailed as noted by the poem ‘Ceremony upon Christmas Eve’ written by Robert Herrick in 1648. He records:

“Down with the rosemary, and so,

Down with the baies, and mistletoe

Down with the holly, ivie and all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,

That so the superstitious find

No one least branch there left behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected, there (maids trust to me)

So many goblins you shall see.”

 

The poem was adapted by Edgar Pittman into Candlemas Eve Carol and similarly the carol Farewell to Christmas notes:

“Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day”

Herrick in his Upon Candlemas Day poem also wrote:

“End now the white loaf and the pie, and let all sports with Christmas die.”

Despite this the custom is largely forgot. This is surprising considering how widespread the observance was.  Raven (1977) records it in Staffordshire:

“in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas decorations used at Stone Mill were taken to the cowsheds and fed to the cattle to prevent them ‘casting’ their calves.”

Palmer (1976) noted that this was the tradition too in Warwickshire, as was it in Worcestershire:

“It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down.”

The custom would indeed appear to be commonly encountered in the west far more than in the North.  In Burne’s () Shropshire, she was told by a servant that holly and ivy was taken down on Candlemas Eve so as to put snow-drops in their place.  In 1864 it is also recorded in Suffolk:

“If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.”

This latter belief still associates with our modern date. Udal (1922) in his Dorsetshire folklore records too:

 “Candlemas Day or Eve – was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holy, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down…but care should be taken not to throw away as ordinary rubbish, but should entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out.”

Yet despite this Hardy’s poem Burning the Holly still favours Twelfth Night but its date of 1898 agrees with Roud (2004) that opinion was changing by the turn of the 20th century. However even in the United States, in Williamsburg,  a 18th century poem records:

“When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.”

 It makes good sense as Candlemas was the Feast of the Purification, the last feast which signified the baby Jesus’s acceptance at the Temple. Being no longer a baby in a Manger but a baptised child. Furthermore as this was a lean time of the year agriculturally it would have little impact. It may also be significant to note that Candlemas Eve was and is Imbolc, the old Pagan celebration and perhaps taking down before may have been a way of distancing from the pagan past.

 Why the change of date?

Is it possible that the authorities wanting to discourage the festivities which associated with the date, especially the Lord of Misrule, established this date as the one when Christmas officially finished and everyone went back to work, especially as in the 1800s communities moved from largely agricultural to industrial.

 Burn the lot!

The majority of correspondent’s state that these decorations should then be burnt and if not bad luck would befall anyone who did not. Roud (2004) notes that there is no geographical spread of the custom and that there was more likely to be disagreement due to changing attitudes over time. He refers to records burning the decorations recorded as far back as the eleventh century but the earliest anti-burning being from 1866.  I’m quite sure the family would want me to burn the decorations though, especially the large ‘plastic’ tree. Burning would bring more than bad luck….but a deadly cocktail of chemicals

Well perhaps it’s not quite a demised custom, I inadvertently have done so and so I gather do some churches, mainly Catholic, although I have not heard of any from Britain.