La Chandeleur: French Celebration Of Candlemas

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates February 2 each year as Candlemas. This celebration is a commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s purification and the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple. The feast is also called by other names: “Feast of the Presentation of Jesus,” “Meeting of the Lord,” and “Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.”

France, being a predominantly Roman Catholic country, also observes this feast on February 2, which is forty days after Christmas. There are three French terms for the occasion: “Jour des crêpes” (crêpes have real signification in this occasion), “Fête de la Lumière” (different from the Festival of Lights in Lyon), and “La Chandeleur” (the most commonly used of the three terms).

The term “Candlemas” was derived from the Latin ritual of lighting candles at midnight to symbolize purification. The original event involved the observance of the Holy Family (Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the baby Jesus) of the rite as described in Chapters 21 to 24 of the Second Book of Luke. In part, the rite required that a mother must present her firstborn boy to the Lord forty days after birth. An offering of two doves must accompany the presentation.

The French celebration of La Chandeleur as a commemoration of the purification of the Virgin Mary first occurred in 1372. The term “Fête de la Lumière” refers to the lighting of blessed candles as a form of remembering Jesus Christ who is the “Light of the World.” This lighting of blessed candles at homes for protection continues to this day in France.

In relation to why La Chandeleur is also called Jour des crêpes, the French pray for good harvest and prosperity for every home and family. All excess flour is used to make crêpes. These pancakes are a symbol of prosperity in France. Farmers believe that wheat will grow better if many crêpes are made. Turning the celebration into a sort of revelry, children engage in crêpe-throwing games during this day.

One of the French traditions during La Chandeleur goes this way: People clutch a coin in the hand which they use for writing; with the other hand, they hold a pan with a crêpe in it. They toss the crêpe in the air and try to catch it back into the pan. If they’re successful, they wrap the coin with the crêpe. This is then brought in the bedroom and placed on top of the cupboard. The way by which this is done is similar to a procession, with the participation of all members of the family. The following year, the coin is given to the poor. This entire ritual is believed to bring good fortune and prosperity to the family for the whole year.

Fortune telling, while making crêpes, is also a tradition during La Chandeleur. In addition, French proverbs pertaining to the occasion come out prominently during this day. Some examples are given below:

• “On la Chandeleur, the day grows by two hours.”

• “On la Chandeleur, winter comes to an end or becomes stronger.”

• “On la Chandeleur, everything is covered with snow and forty days are lost.”

Crêpes certainly are an important part of the French celebration of Candlemas. One reason for this is that crêpes, to the French, symbolize the sun, which seems to be absent in their lives during this time of the year.

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