Candlemas & Presentation of Christ

February 2

February 2 marks the sacred day in ancient Jerusalem when Jesus’s woodchuck poked its head out of the ground and declared six more weeks of Imbolc.

Wait, no, so is Groundhog Day the modern equivalent of the Purification of Mary? Is Candlemas a pagan holiday? And how often is Puxasawquantalahacwney Phil the Prognosticating Groundhog right?

According to Christian tradition, Candlemas (February 2nd) falls 40 days after Christmas, and marks the day Mary and Joseph took their 40 day-old baby Jesus to the temple for presentation and purification, as the Jewish laws of the time commanded:

A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremoniously unclean for 7 days…

Then the woman must wait 33 days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.” – Leviticus 12

Count ’em. 33 +7 = 40. Of course, this assumes Jesus was born on December 25, but that’s another story.

Luke 2:22 describes Mary’s purification ceremony:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”

where the devout Simeon beheld the 5 week-old baby and proclaimed:

“Mine eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

The first recorded commemoration of the event comes from the famous globe-trotting 4th century nun Etheria (also Egeria) on her trek to Jerusalem. She writes:

The 40th day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on the day there is a procession, in which all take part…and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests preach, and after them the bishop, always taking for their subject the part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the 40th day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess…saw Him..and of that offering which His parents made.”

Note that according to Etheria the ceremony was known only as “40th day after the Epiphany,” not “40th day after the birth.” And it was celebrated on February 14 rather than February 2nd.

The changing of the date and the emphasis on “Purification of the Virgin” came when the holiday was celebrated in Rome.

The Romans considered February the “month of purification,” named after Februus, the god of death and purification. The Lupercalia in the middle of the month, dedicated to the founder of Rome, was a holiday of purification. (The middle of the months were the most auspicious days for the Romans. Originally the full moon marked the middle, or “Ides” of the month while the new moon marked the beginning and end of each month.)

Egeria’s 4th century description of Jerusalem’s annual celebration gives creed to the theory that the Presentation/Purification was not “invented” to stem other pagan holidays; however, its popularization and transformation in the West into Candlemas may have been a response to the pagan festivals of Europe.


Candlemas represents the day the priest would bless the candles to be used throughout the year. Originally…

“Roman Christians borrowed the practice of using candles in the religious services from the Romans, and in AD 494 Pope Gelasius I set the day of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary at the time of the popular Lupercalia.”

All Around the Year, Jack Santino

Scott Richert writes:

“Originally, the feast was celebrated on February 14, the 40th day after Epiphany (January 6), because Christmas wasn’t yet celebrated as its own feast, and so the Nativity, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and the feast celebrating Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana were all celebrated on the same day. By the last quarter of the fourth century, however, the Church at Rome had begun to celebrate the Nativity on December 25, so the Feast of the Presentation was moved to February 2, 40 days later.”

On February 2 though the festival now competed with the Celtic Imbolc (or Oimelc) on February 1 and 2. A candle would be lit in every window to honor the Mother Goddess Brigit who was associated with fire.

In the 1970s the Catholic Church changed the name to the “Presentation of Christ in the Temple,” reducing the emphasis on Mary’s purification.

But in Latin American and some European countries the holiday still refers to the Virgin Mary:

Peru, Bolivia: Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria
Brazil: Festa de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes Porto Allegre
Germany: Maria Lichtmess

Wilson’s Almanac February 1

Wilson’s Almanac February 2



January 19 (January 20 in Leap Years)

If you’ve just had an epiphany, you’re not alone.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany on January 19. (January 20 in Leap Year.) It’s called Timkat, or Timket.

In parts of Europe and the Americas Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day, (though no number or rank is specified in the Bible) and celebrates the visit of the Magi who bestow gifts on the baby Jesus.

In the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches however, the day commemorates Jesus’s baptism by St. John in the River Jordan.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Mark 1:10

Traditionally Christians celebrate the event twelve to fourteen days after Christmas. (Once Epiphany was the twelfth day of Christmas.) In the Ethiopian Calendar Christmas falls on December 28, or January 7 Gregorian.


Timkat/Epiphany falls on January 11th in the Ethiopian Calendar, or January 19th Gregorian.

The night before, priests take the Tabot (which symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant) containing the Ten Commandments from each Church. Concealed by an ornamental cloth, it is taken to a tent, close to a consecrated pool or stream, accompanied by much ringing of bells, blowing of trumpets and the burning of incense. —

In Timket, Tella and Tej are brewed, special bread is baked called “Himbash” (in Tigrigna) “Ambasha” (in Amharic), and sheep are slaughtered to mark the three-day celebration. —

While most African churches south of Egypt date only to the colonial era, Hebraic traditions and Semitic language were practiced by some Ethiopian tribes before the birth of Christ.


In fact, the Ethiopian Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion, claims to hold the original Ark of the Covenant, said to have been brought to Ethiopia by Minelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, around the 9th century B.C.

The Ark’s authenticity has been impossible to verify, as only one person has access to the Ark at a time: a sacred guardian, chosen for a lifetime term by the previous guardian.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has the most extended Biblical Canon of any major church, numbering 81 sacred books. Among those writings not included by Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic churches are the books of Enoch, Esdras, and Jubilee. – photos/celebration of Timket

Timket 2008: Epiphany & Stardom – a Peace Corps blog

Christian Unity Week of Prayer

January 18-25

January 18, 2008 marked 100 years since the first Christian Unity Week of Prayer was first held on January 18, 1908.

Over a century ago an American Episcopalian priest and an English Anglican vicar exchanged correspondence regarding a day of prayer for Christian Unity. Reverend Jones, the Anglican vicar, proposed June 29th, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Friar Paul Wattson, the Episcopalian, suggested a week of prayer between the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (then celebrated on January 18th) and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.

Matthew 16:18

The Feast of the Chair, now celebrated on February 22, is not in honor of the grand Basilica in St. Peter’s Cathedral, designed by Bernini during the 17th century. Nor is it meant to pay homage to the remains of the chair behind it–once thought to have been St. Peter’s own chair–which is now believed to have been built around the 9th century.

The word “chair” in Latin is cathedra, from which we get the word “cathedral.” Specifically, cathedra referred to a chair with armrests, or a throne. But the word signified the power that went along with the throne of the Roman Emperor. Today we still say “the seat of power” to refer to an abstract position of power, not as a four-legged furniture piece. (Likewise, “chairman of the board” does not mean upholsterer.)

Thus the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter is in effect in honor of the creation of the Papacy by Jesus and St. Peter.

Records of the Feast date all the way back to the 4th century, and were adapted from an ancient Roman tradition honoring the memory of the original patriarch of a dynasty, family or clan.

In 1908 Friar Paul Wattson felt this would be an appropriate date on which to start an Ecumenical week of prayer. The term Ecumenical Movement refers to “the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken…to promote Christian unity.” (Unitatis Regintegratio, Vatican II)

The Society of the Atonement was founded by Wattson and Mother Lurana White in Garrsion, New York in 1898, one of its main missions being greater unification between the differing sects of Christianity. Wattson decided upon the name “Atonement” while reading Romans 5:11. The word atonementseemed to stand out from that sacred page with a distinctness all it own…”  When divided the word read ‘at one’ -ment.

Friar James Gardiner describes the first observance of Christian Unity Prayer Week:

“Ten inches of snow blanketed the Hudson River Valley and temperatures hovered in the low 30s. There couldn’t have been more than a handful of people–probably just the Friars and Sisters–who gathered each night in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels at Greymoor.”

Through Wattson’s correspondence with religious leader thousands of others joined in prayer at other locations.

The following year Wattson was told, “You cannot serve either the Papal Church or the Protestant Episcopal Church well if you try to serve both at the same time.

Friar Paul along with Mother Lurana and other members of the Society of the Atonement made the choice of submitting to the Catholic Church as a distinct religious community. The Friars and Sisters of the Atonement were recognized as corporate body, “the first such occurrence since the Reformation.” (

The Christian Unity Octave was blessed by Pope Pius X. During World War I Pope Benedict XV encouraged the annual celebration throughout the Catholic Church. For its Golden Jubilee Pope John XXIII announced:

Encouraging you and your community to ever more strenuous efforts in the propagation of the Chair of Unity Octave, we urgently invite the faithful of every race and clime to join in this period of prayer.

Five years later the Second Vatican Council recognized that prayer was “the soul of ecumenical movement” and “welcomed ecumenical dialogue with non-Catholic Christians and with Orthodox Churches.”

The decree announced revolutionary changes that encouraged cooperation between separate churches, including:

“All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of the Body of Christ, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church…

“The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.

“Catholics are encouraged to join in ecumincal activity, and to meet non-Catholic Christians in truth and love…

“All Christians have a common purpose–to confess Christ before men. Practical expression must be given to this, by relieving the distress which afflicts so many of the human race: famine, illiteracy, shortage of housing and the unequal distribution of wealth.”

[posted January 18, 2008]

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St. Anthony: Blessing of the Animals

January 17

St. Anthony the Hermit

And God maketh the beast of the earth after its kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, and God seeth that it was good.

— Genesis 1:25

Before there was Doctor Dolittle, there was St. Anthony Abad, patron saint of the animal kingdom.

St. Anthony the Hermit, or St. Anthony the Great, was born in Egypt in 251 AD and lived to be 105. At age 34, he relinquished all his wealth and headed into the desert to be alone with God and meditate on Christ. He spent twenty years in isolation living in an abandoned Roman fort on a mountain by the Nile. The devil tormented him with images of animals attacking him, but Anthony never gave in.

Later in life, according to legend, various animals helped guide Anthony on his travels, including a wolf and a raven.  Once a dog attacked his enemy. Once he cured a pig from illness. He’s often pictured wandering the wilderness with a pig by his side.

Anthony’s other claim to fame was his fight against the followers of Arian Christianity in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Arias was an Egyptian Christian who taught that, while Jesus was divine, he was not the same as God. The Council of Nicea declared Arian Christianity heretical in 325 AD.

Blessings of pets and livestock are common, but not limited to Latin and Hispanic cultures. The biggest ceremonies occur on the Sundays nearest the feast days of St. Francis of Assisi (October 4) and St. Anthony the Hermit (January 17).

St. Anthony died on January 17, celebrated as his spiritual birth in Heaven.

Even now I remember being caught up in the moment, feeling inexplicably happy when my doggie received her very own blessing from the priest. When all is said and done, it was a remarkable experience, a chance to share our love for our beloved pets, and to renew our commitment to protecting and respecting all of God’s creatures.

Rose Lee Hayden, Goin’ to the Chapel, The Blessing of the Animals a la Romana

Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar

Epiphany, Day of the Kings

January 6

Every child knows that at one point Christmas had twelve days. The song says so. “On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

But this begs two questions:

First, what kind of sicko sends their true love sends 23 birds, 50 assorted pipers, drummers, milk maids, ladies and leapin’ lords, five rings and a pear tree, and doesn’t include one vacuum?

And second, what happened to the other eleven days? What kind of cruel world advertises the twelve days of Christmas to its children and gives them only one? “Sorry kids, we just couldn’t afford the first 11 days this year. If only you’d been born last century.”

The truth is…

The Truth

Actually December 25th is the first day of Christmas, not the last.

In the modern world of Christmas so much energy is focused on preparing exclusively for the first day that by the time the 26th rolls around many people are simply Christmas’d out.

But for much of Christian history, the twelve days began on the night of December 25th and ended the day of January 6th. (…though the calendar varies for different Churches. Christmas in the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, doesn’t fall until January 7th.)

Today we tend to mark our holidays by calendar day–midnight to midnight–but these holidays were traditionally celebrated sunset to sunset. The famed “Twelfth Night” actually falls on the evening of January 5th, though calendars mark the Epiphany as January 6th.

The Epiphany

The Epiphany literally means ‘manifestation’ and marks the day the Three Wise Men, or Magi, encountered the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus.

There are different theories as to the details surrounding the Magi mentioned in the Gospels. In fact no number is specified in the Bible, but the number three may have originated due to the three gifts bestowed upon Christ: gold, myrrh and frankincense. Matthew does not give clues to their origin, nationality, religion, or ethnicity either except to say they came “from the East” to Jerusalem. Hence they are referred to as the Three Kings of the Orient, although their rank is also supposition

The three differing places of origin may have developed as a way of demonstrating the diversity of Christ’s influence.

The names attributed to the Magi vary from place to place. We can trace the names Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior, and Balthasar to a 6th century Greek text]

One theory for their origin is that they were Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism was one of the most common religions of Persia at the time, and its priests were astrologers, who were revered for their knowledge of the night sky.

The Magi bestowed three gifts that represent:

  • Gold – royalty, for kings
  • Frankincense – piety, for priests
  • Myrrh – suffering, or painful death

which led to the Virgin Mary’s famous quip: “So which one of you Wise Guys brought the Myrrh?”

Over the next two millennia many European traditions associated with the winter solstice merged with the twelve days of Christmas. For example, on Twelfth Night roles were often reversed, such as master and servant, a tradition stemming from the Roman Saturnalia.
So enjoy this the twelfth and last day of Christmas. And whatever you do, don’t give a baby myrrh. That’s just rude.

St. Genevieve

January 3

St. Genevieve of Paris
St. Genevieve of Paris

Today is St. Genevieve’s feast day. She’s honored as the Patron Saint of Paris.

St. Genevieve became a nun at the tender age of 15 and devoted the rest of her life—another 65 years—to Christ. The secret of her longevity may have been her diet. She didn’t eat much more than barley bread and beans, and according to her biography, only twice a week, Sundays and Thursdays. She loosened this restriction at the age of 50 at the request of some bishops.

When Huns Attack

During the Hun invasion of what’s now France in 451, St. Genevieve’s prayers were believed to have prevented the Huns from attacking Paris; they headed toward Orleans instead. (Notice Genevieve is not the patron saint of Orleans…)

St. Genevieve
St. Genevieve

The following decade, during the lengthy Childeric siege on the city, Genevieve sneaked through a blockade to bring back much-needed grain to Paris’s starving citizens.

Death did not stop Genevieve from performing miracles. Parisians held a procession of her relics during the deadly plague of 1129 which killed 14,000 people. Spread of the disease ceased almost immediately, and many who were sick were reported to have healed upon touching her relics.

St. Genevieve’s saint day is January 3, but for centuries Parisians celebrated the anniversary of that first procession–November 26, 1129–with another procession in her honor.

Jesus: Happy 2011th–2015th?–2019th?…

December 25

Behold! the angels said, ‘Oh Mary! God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and in (the company of) those nearest to God.

— Qur’an 3:45

Nativity, Gerard von Honthorst (1590-1656)

Today we celebrate Jesus Christ’s 2011th birthday.

Actually, no.

We don’t know the year Jesus was born. But it’s believed he was born at least four years prior to the year we count as 1 A.D. because King Herod the Great, whom Matthew cites as king when Jesus was born, died in 3 or 4 BC.

One theory for this discrepancy is that Dionysius Exiguus–the sixth century monk who created the A.D. dating system (short for Anno Domini Nostri Jesu Christi or “in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”)–forgot to calculate the four-year reign of Emperor Octavian when adding up the years since the birth of Christ. Thus, the year he deduced to be 525 AD should have been 529.

Another theory states that Jesus was born even earlier, since the census that Luke mentions as the time of Jesus’s birth [This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria – Luke 2:2] occurred every fourteen years. Working backward, historians figured the first census would have been conducted in 8 BC.

So you see, we’re already in the future: 2019 AD.

But whether we’re wishing Jesus a happy 2011th, 2015th or 2019th birthday, we’re almost certainly celebrating the wrong day.

There’s no hint in the Gospels as to the day or even the season of Christ’s birth. A fact which has led some Christian denominations to exclaim that, had God wanted us to celebrate the birthday of the Lord, He would have given us some indication of the date.

In 4000 Years of Christmas, Episcopalian minister and scholar Earl Count recounts that the Romans celebrated December 25 as the birthday of the Sun God Mithra, a tradition inherited from Persian Mithraism. Similarly, the Annunciation of Christ, observed 9 months earlier on March 25, coincided with the Spring Equinox, which was celebrated as the New Year in the Near East.

In fact, Dionysius himself never considered the first day of the Christian era to be Christ’s birth—theoretically December 25, 1 AD—but Christ’s conception—aka, the Annunciation—on March 25.

That led to some confusion. As late as 18th century the English still marked March 25 as the start of the calendar year. (i.e., March 24, 1699 was followed by March 25, 1700. Yes, these are the people that cursed us with the Imperial measurement system of feet and pounds.)

In the United States, Christmas–a holiday once banned by the Puritans–has far outstripped the popularity of the Annunciation, or any holiday for that matter, partially due to its potential for consumerism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Which has led the folks at The Good News to ask, not how can we put the Christ back into Christmas, but “How can we put Jesus back into the season when He was never part of it to begin with?

Well, regardless of how Christmas was created, it has become the de facto time to observe the principles taught by Jesus nearly 2000 years ago in a troublesome Roman backwater. Christmastime is the season of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Some Christians say they wish Christmas could last all year. Others say that Christmas’s pagan roots mean we shouldn’t celebrate it at all. I’m inclined to agree with the former. If we don’t know which day of the 365 is the real Christmas, best to hedge our bets, and make every day a holy day.