Candlemas is another name for the Feast of the Purification (hypapante in Greek), now called the Feast of the Presentation, when the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem according to the Law of Moses. The Hebrew religion considered the shedding of blood a cause of making someone ritually unclean. It was not a moral or spiritual impurity but a ritual one, even if it involved the natural menstruation of a woman or the blood involved in childbirth. Consequently, Mosaic Law requires mothers of newborn sons to wait forty days before they may be ritually purified by the Jewish priest in the temple.
Before the Second Vatican Council, Candlemas, which takes place on February 2, was considered the last day of the Christmas season; decorations were taken down at that time. This feast is distinctly different from the Circumcision of the Lord, formerly celebrated on January 1, eight days after the birth of Christ. Forty days after His birth, His mother fulfilled the requirements of the Law and she and Saint Joseph went to the temple to make the customary offering of a lamb, or, if a lamb could not be obtained, an offering of two turtle doves or two pigeons. The animals would be sacrificed on the altar and the woman would be ritually purified.
Candles made of beeswax are traditionally blessed on this feast to commemorate the candles used by Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary at the temple. Mary’s ritual purification and baby Jesus’ presentation are recorded in the Gospel of Luke
2:22–40. A procession can begin the day’s Mass with candles carried by the faithful, symbolizing their joining the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) in walking to the temple. The candles also symbolize Christ as the Light of the World.
The readings from Scripture proclaimed at Mass that day (Luke 2:22–40) also tell of the prophecy made by Saint Simeon, an elderly Jew who lived long enough to see the Messiah. He was always in the temple, and when he saw the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, he knew the time had come. Simeon told the mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” That part about a sword piercing the heart of Mary is considered a prophecy which was fulfilled thirty-three years later when Jesus died on the cross and Mary stood nearby, helpless, witnessing her Son’s horrible crucifixion and death, and watching as the Roman soldier Longinus thrust a spear into the heart of Jesus to ensure He was dead. At that moment, it is believed Mary felt a pain in her own heart, which only a mother who has just lost a child can understand.
The very next day, February 3, the same candles blessed by the priest for Candlemas are used to bless throats as part of the feast of Saint Blaise. Saint Blaise was a fourth century AD bishop and martyr who, while in prison awaiting his execution during one of the Roman persecutions, miraculously healed a boy who was choking on a fishbone. The mother had brought her son to Saint Blaise for a blessing and when he gave it, the fish bone popped out of the lad’s mouth and he was saved. (This was before anyone knew about the Heimlich maneuver.)
Consequently, it is traditional for Catholics to have their throats blessed by a priest or deacon on the Feast of Saint Blaise. Two blessed candles are crossed and placed against the throat while the prayer is said: “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may you be protected from every ailment of the throat and from every other evil, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”