Last month I bemoaned our nation’s hastily-concluded holiday festivities. The winter blues were already making their presence known, but I’ve recently entered a profound new phase, and not just because of the polar vortex.
On Wednesday, when my best friend (BLESS YOU MADELINE!) texted to check on me, the best I could tell her was “Well, I’m not suicidal. Still eating and hydrating.” But later in the afternoon, I had to muster my strength merely to check my own pulse. Conclusion: Despite a strong impression to the contrary, I was still, in fact, alive.
All this is just to say that if winter, or work, or the lack thereof, or politics, or loneliness, or that one person you’re cooped up with has you feeling in the pits too, I am here for you. You are not alone in this.
Two days ago, there was a moment when I couldn’t fathom getting up off the sofa for water. But last night I danced around my kitchen to Sinatra tunes with a glass of pinot noir and baked the most delicious turnovers. The point is: If it happened for me, it can happen for you too. Don’t give up!
This too shall pass.
Baking is one marvelous way to pass these cold dark nights, but hygge is more than tasty food, and hygge is what I’ve promised you. Today’s cause for seasonal, convivial merriment? CANDLEMAS.
This nearly forgotten holiday is probably a distant descendant of the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia, and a grandmother of “Groundhog Day.”
In the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas is also the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, marking the end of the Christmas season, which is why my lights, wreath, etc. are still up until tonight, and so should yours be. Apparently throughout Europe many municipalities continue to display their Christmas finery until February 2.
Sadly, premature de-decoration has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. So embarrassing.
Apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We’re still basically a nation of hard-working puritans who hate rituals and fun.
I digress. Back to Candlemas and why it deserves a comeback. Candlemas is all about light. As the name implies, traditionally the Christian faithful would bring their household candles to the priest to be blessed as part of a beautiful procession before mass, replete with special prayers, melodious chant and a dozen poetic allusions to the light that illuminates our days and our souls.
In Poland, where the occasion is especially popular, this day is called the feast of Matki Gromnicznej, which translates literally as “Our Lady of Thunder Candles.” I swear, the next time someone implies that religion is boring, he just might have to meet my thunder candles.
Pious, processional people aren’t the only ones who need a pick-me-up right now, as we sit shivering in bleak mid-winter. So what might Candlemas mean for us at home?
Candlemas is all about light.
First of all, light your candles. Every candle in the house. If you don’t have any, you can get a bushel of tea lights for a few bucks at the dollar store, grocery store, hardware store, etc. Votive holders are great, but if you have none, just plop the tea light atop a cupped scrap of aluminum foil in a small glass jar or tumbler. I even put mine in old teacups, second-hand champagne flutes, clean tin cans and a stainless steel-lined stein. The flame reflects off the shiny interior of opaque vessels to give a warm, atmospheric glow. The foil just makes it easier to clean up any melted wax.
If you have pyrophobia, (or pyromaniac children) you have my personal dispensation to use electric “candles” or white twinkly lights. I recommend tucking them into the back of bookcases, trailing them along the tops of cabinets, twining them amongst knick-knacks, stuffing them under the leaves of large houseplants, or hanging them vertically behind your curtains and drapes. These techniques will de-emphasize the unsightly wires and mute the bulbs’ sharp light. You’re trying to acheive a subtler, softer, more candle-like luster.
Turn off every other lamp and light fixture in the house. The resultant rosy atmosphere is a kind of everyday magic. Trust me on this one. Guests might think my candle-lit dinners are fancy. The truth is that nobody can tell whether I’ve vacuumed the carpet, spilled some seasonings, slightly singed the flatbreads we’re eating, or made-up my face.
Candlelight makes us beautiful. Beer goggles can’t even…well, hold a candle to its romantic impact.
Second, turn on your favorite music. Personally I’m starting with Katie McMahon’s “Celtic Christmas,” album, because today is truly the bleak mid-winter, and I could use some good cheer. Besides, McMahon’s voice is divine any day of the year.
Thirdly, treat yourself to something tasty and warming. It can be whatever little specialty you want, from spiked hot cider to a family favorite cookie. Just give your body a taste of comfort and a smidge of insulating fat to tide you over until spring warms up.
My favorite Candlemas culinary tradition is the flippant French one involving crepes. I think it’s generally performed in the morning, but I am fashionably late, as usual. This isn’t a cooking blog (yet) so I won’t give you a crepe recipe. Store-bought specimens are acceptable. However, these fancy French flapjacks are actually very simple, requiring just eggs, flour, milk, butter, water and a pinch of salt. The tricky part is the flipping, which we’ll get to in a moment. Crepes are also frugal and fun for all because you can each fill them with whatever you like, whether sweet or savory. This is pretty great for leftover night or when you realize you have 12 half-empty jars of jam, preserves and apple butter cluttering up the fridge.
Anyway, when you’re ready to flip your first crepe, clasp a coin (traditionally gold, but we paupers will make do with what we have) in your left hand. With your right, give the pan your best flick to flip the crepe and catch it back in the pan. If you land it cleanly, legend has it that you’re destined to prosper this year.
Whatever you eat, and however you are weathering this cold winter, let this Candlemas remind you to look out hopefully for the returning light. Sit a while in a pool of gratitude for the comforts and comestibles that hold body and soul together. Spring may still be far off, but it is coming.
Happy Candlemas, friends, and sweet dreams.