“Lead Kindly Light” is not exactly on the A-List of well-known hymns, even to regular churchgoers, but it has long been well-loved by fans of choral music. The tune to which it is most commonly sung these days, Sandon, was composed by my 3x Great Grandfather Charles Henry Purday, a nineteenth century composer and musician who sang at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Purday is better remembered as a music publisher, and as a pioneer in the movement for copyright law reform, but Sandon remains as his best-known musical legacy.
Purday's appealing melody, and the plaintive yet comforting words written by John Henry Newman at a time when he was feeling troubled and alone, make it a particularly appropriate piece for our difficult times:
However, it also works well as a title for some thoughts on Candlemas, one of many neglected or forgotten Christian festivals which could do so much to help brighten our year, especially in times like the present, which are both literally and metaphorically dark. Before moving on to that, have a listen to my Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s composition, sung here by Ely Cathedral Choir:
So, what of Candlemas? Among the many reasons why I follow
and commemorate the life of Jesus of Nazareth is that doing so can give a form
and pattern to our necessarily secular lives and provide opportunities for
constructive reflection. Candlemas Day could be seen as a landmark in the
Christian year, a moment of ending and new beginning. It falls towards the end
of winter as we start to see the first signs of spring. Candlemas is a rather
forgotten and neglected festival, marking the last day of the Christmas Season,
and traditionally the day on which a Christmas Crib is put away, having been left
in place when all the other decorations came down on 12th night. In our house,
the two cribs stay defiantly in place until February 2nd.
Candlemas commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, six weeks after his birth, as told in the Gospel of St Luke. Presentation of a child was - still is - a standard rite of passage for a Jewish child, but the story is told of an old man in the Temple, Simeon, who on seeing the infant Jesus brought for Presentation, declared that he had "seen the Light of the World", and could now die happy.
It's easy to see how this recognition of Jesus as the "Light of the World" developed into Candlemas: a festival of light in the depths of winter is an appealing idea that long pre-dates Christianity, so the Church took it over in the same way that Christmas and Easter were "Christianised" versions of earlier festivals. What's surprising is that neither the Church nor the exploitative commercial world has ever made much of Candlemas in the way that happens with Christmas, Easter and various Saints days.
I think that's a shame. If ever there was a time of year when we need a nice little extra festival, it's surely the end of January/start of February. It's famously a depressing time of the year, with "Blue Monday" in mid-January often designated by expert psychologists as the most depressing day of the year. A case of being paid a lot of money for stating the obvious if ever there was one. So surely, we should all jump at the chance to have a little celebration at this gloomy time of the year. A bit of light in the darkness, just as Jesus was, and is, a shining light of goodness in an often dark and evil world.
In recent years, the church has adopted Christingle as a festival of light, but rather unwisely Christingle gets crammed into Advent and so gets rather caught up in the pre-Christmas busy-ness. Caught between the church's unwillingness to sing carols and celebrate during the restrained and dignified season of Advent, and a desire to anticipate the coming of the Light of the World, Christingle seems to me to be rather an incongruous intrusion in Advent, which deserves better.
It's not an original idea to mark Candlemas. It's a day steeped in folklore, derived from the idea that the end of winter may, or may not, be in sight. The Americans call it Groundhog Day - when this animal emerges from its burrow after hibernation and goes back in if it sees its own shadow - this recognises the not unreasonable idea that if the weather is sunny and settled at the start of February, there is every chance that winter will re-appear before spring finally gets going.
The same idea is present in an old English rhyme:
Here's a link to my Candlemas Spotify Playlist: