Today is la Chandeleur or la fête des chandelles. I had never heard of it before we moved to France, but I had heard of Candlemas – lovely name – which is the British equivalent. To those of you in the States, it’s also Groundhog Day. Nowadays in France, it’s an excuse for eating crêpes (pancakes), but, as ever, it has a host of traditions behind it.
Christian tradition grafted onto a pagan festival
La Chandeleur always falls on 2nd February, exactly 40 days after Christmas. It is a religious festival, marking the day when Jesus was presented in the Temple, and the purification of Mary after giving birth. It’s the very last gasp of Noël.
The festival also has pagan origins. La Chandeleur marked the period when the days start to draw out more noticeably, halfway between the winter and spring solstices. People celebrated the return of the light with torchlight processions and with candles placed around the house.
The festival was taken over by a 5th-century pope, who introduced a candle-lit procession every 2nd February. According to legend, the pope distributed pancakes to pilgrims arriving in Rome.
Pancakes may also have a symbolic significance, since their disc shape and colour resemble the returning sun.
They also symbolised the harvest for the coming year. Si point ne veux de blé charbonneux, mange des crêpes à la Chandeleur. If you don’t want the wheat to rot, eat pancakes at Candlemas.
Pancakes were prepared using surplus flour from the previous year. To ensure a good harvest and prosperity in the coming year, some people flipped the pancake while holding a gold coin in the other hand. With the same aim, others placed the first pancake on top of the wardrobe. The crêpe did not go mouldy and thus warded off famine and hardship.
Today, the religious aspects probably pass most people by, but the pancake tradition lives on. The supermarkets hold promos of non-stick frying pans and crêpe ingredients in the days beforehand. Most recipes are for sweet pancakes. I don’t have a sweet tooth, preferring the savoury variety. However, I am willing to sacrifice this penchant in exchange for a crêpe au Nutella.
La Chandeleur and the weather
A variety of other dictons (sayings) are associated with la Chandeleur. Here are a few:
À la Chandeleur, l’hiver se meurt ou prend vigueur. At Candlemas, the winter either fades or becomes more rigorous.
À la Chandeleur, grande neige et froideur. At Candlemas, there’s heavy snow and freezing cold.
Si la Chandeleur pleure, l’hiver ne demeure. If it rains at Candlemas, winter won’t hang around.
In different parts of France, animals are associated with la Chandeleur, when they start to emerge from hibernation. Thus, it’s the bear in the Pyrénées, the otter in Lorraine and the hedgehog everywhere.
As in the States with the groundhog, there’s a saying that if an otter sees its shadow on emerging from its burrow, it will go back in for 40 days. You can stay out, otters: not much chance of seeing the sun today…
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