The Christian festival of Candlemas, which is celebrated annually on 2nd February, marks the ‘Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ (Luke 2:22-40), which is the official name for this feast day. Candlemas is celebrated by Christians throughout the world. Ten years ago, when in Madeira, I witnessed an amazing celebration when hundreds of local people, carrying lighted candles, took to the streets and processed into a cathedral. There were so many people that most of them had to stand outside and listen to the service on loudspeakers.

The name, ‘Candlemas’ evolved from a tradition that churches, while celebrating the time that the child Jesus was presented in the temple, used the occasion to bless the candles they had bought for the coming year. Candles, of course, were the usual source of light in dark church buildings before the electric light became available in the early 1900’s. In my parish church, St Andrew’s Sonning, a single electric light bulb was installed in October 1934 to supplement the candles that had always been used. It was first light bulb in the village. The vicar, writing in our parish magazine, said: ‘At Evensong, when the congregation was even larger than usual, the church looked extraordinarily beautiful … and the combination of the electric light and the candles throughout the church being markedly effective.’

Candles, of course, were not only the main source of light – oil lamps being another source – in churches but also in people’s homes and workplaces. Most villages, and certainly most towns and cities, had their candlestick maker, hence the nursery rhyme, ‘Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker’. Candles, or rather the light they provided, were an essential commodity. It is estimated that in the UK we spend £1.9 billion on candles every year!

Despite a modern day LED lighting system that welcomes visitors to my church today, candles are still used for all services. Before Covid, our Sacristan bought over 650 candles every year to replenish over 100+ candlesticks and chandeliers. The oldest chandelier still in use dates from 1675.

Like some other churches, Candlemas has also become the time to celebrate Christingle. The weeks immediately before and after Christmas are extremely busy with carol services for three local schools, and all the other Christmas celebrations so that holding Christingle at Candlemas on the first Sunday of February has become a very popular family occasion amidst the winter gloom. There can be no doubt that the humble candle is the perfect symbol for Jesus as the light that shines into the darkest parts of our world. 

Bob Peters 

Bob Peters is the Licensed Lay Minister and Magazine Editor at the Parish Church of St Andrew, serving the villages of Sonning, Charvill and Sonning Eye in Berkshire. He is also Vice-Chairman of the Association for Church Editors.

Source : Association for Church Editors