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Candlemas and the Lupercalia

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the feast traditionally known in the West as the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and in the East as the Meeting of the Lord with Simeon in the Temple. Because candles are blessed and given to the faithful before the Mass, it has long been known in English as Candlemas; Italian, French and German all have analogous names for it as well.

The pilgrim Egeria writes, in her famous account of her visit to the Holy Land in the later 4th century, that the church of Jerusalem celebrated a feast in honor of the Meeting with particular solemnity, “just as at Easter”, forty days after the Epiphany on January 6th. In her time, the Epiphany commemorated all the events of Christ’s infancy, and the Meeting was therefore originally kept on February 14th; this arrangement is still observed to this day in the Armenian Church. When the feast of Christmas was adopted in the East shortly after, the eastern Epiphany was made to focus on the Lord’s Baptism; the Meeting, as an event of His infancy, was then moved back to February 2nd, counting the forty days from December 25th. There is good evidence that a procession with candles was associated with the feast from an early date.

According to the Liber Pontificalis, Pope St Sergius I (687-701) established a procession from the church of St Adrian in the Roman Forum to Saint Mary Major, to be held on the Annunciation, the Assumption and Nativity of the Virgin, and the “feast of St Simeon”. Born in Sicily, but of Syrian origin, this Pope was certainly familiar from his youth with the liturgies of both the Byzantine and Latin tradition.

The church of Saint Adrian in the Roman Forum, shown here on the right in a 16th century print. The church was built in the 7th century inside the long-abandoned Roman senate house known as the Curia Julia, but almost every trace of the building’s history as a church was removed in a restoration from 1935-38.

Many improbable attempts have been made to connect the Candlemas blessing and procession with the ancient Roman purification rite of the Lupercalia. The Venerable Bede, writing in roughly the year 720, says that the Roman King Numa dedicated February to the god Februus, another name for Pluto, “who was believed to have power over rites of purification,” and established it as a month of various rites to religiously purify the city. (The name of both the month and the god derive from “februare – to purify.”) Bede then says that the Christian religion changed “this custom” for the better, without mentioning the Lupercalia specifically, by instituting a procession with candles in its place “in the same month, on the day of St Mary.” (De temporum ratione XII; P.L. XC, col. 351)

The Lupercalia are mentioned repeatedly by other Church Fathers, and even at the end of the fifth century, Pope St Gelasius I felt the need to combat some vestiges of its celebration. A race though the city that formed part of the festival was still being run, and the Pope sarcastically suggested in a letter to a Roman senator who defended the practice that the runners should return to the more ancient practice, and go naked. Bede’s idea becomes more tempting as an explanation for the procession’s origins when one considers that the Lupercalia were celebrated from February 13th to the 15th, coinciding with the Purification’s original Eastern date; and further, that the name of the Christian feast that begins the ancient Roman month of purification was changed to “the Purification of the Virgin” in Rome.

For all this, however, it is extremely unlikely that any vestiges of the pagan rite remained in the time of Pope Sergius, who instituted the procession almost two centuries after Gelasius, and not for the Purification alone, but for all the Marian feasts. Rome had suffered in the meantime a significant depopulation during the plagues and wars of the sixth century, which dealt a terrible blow to the city’s ancient customs and institutions. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that the feast was ever kept in the West on any date other than February 2nd.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, mosaic by Jacopo Torriti, 1296, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

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