Candlemas is tomorrow, and I have to say that we moderns are shamefully neglectful in our celebrations. In earlier times, the party extended from Epiphany through Candlemas, and in some sense that whole period was considered the 12th Night. This is why Shakespeare’s play was premiered on February 2nd.
There may be other reasons for his choice of that date, too. We know that Shakespeare was the father of twins, Judith and Hamnet, and that those twins were baptized on Candlemas. Hamnet died at the age of 11, and Sonnet 33 alludes to the loss:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendour on my brow:
But out alack he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
So, for Shakespeare, the day was full of meaning, with both blessing and sorrow. In a way it’s fitting, because candlemas encompasses both of those themes.
Nikolaus Gihr, in the best commentary I’ve ever read on the Mass called The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained, talks about the theme of candles and sacrifice. The Light of the World must be immolated upon the altar, and so the wax must be pure (these days, it must be at least 51% beeswax. This, by the way, is the key to understanding why there are so many monastic beekeepers and why bees are all over medieval art). Gihr writes:
The burning candle is intended to represent the God-Man, Jesus Christ…The bright flame above represents the Divinity of Christ; the candle proper symbolizes His humanity., the wick concealed within the candle is a figure of His soul, the wax itself, which is the product of the virginal bee, is an emblem of Christ’s most pure body.
As worship proceeds, the candles are sacrificially consumed and become an almost living symbol of Our Lord’s death. I recall Eamon Duffy’s book on a small parish in Morebath, England that devles into the life of the parish in the years immediately preceeding the schism caused by Henry VIII (spoiler alert, typical English Catholics were very much opposed to the Reformation). One of the highlights of the year and the largest fundraiser – after beer sales, of course – was the purchase of candles by the parishioners.
And of course, Candlemas has a more official name, The Presentation of Our Lord. In England, at least, Candlemas was the last day before the fields were tilled, so every celebrates Christmas one last time and then prepares to get to work. The fruits of the Presentation begin to visibly express themselves in the Month of May – Mary’s month – with the onset of spring and the flowering of creation.
This ends up being the answer that Gerard Manley Hopkins settles upon in his poem “May Magnificat”:
MAY is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Tomorrow is a turning point in the liturgical year, one that alludes to both joy and sorrow, good times and bad, the Cross and the Resurrection.