Candlemas (February 2nd) was the most unshadowed, serenely hopeful feast of the pre-reformation church. Like almost all such feasts, its meaning goes further back than Christianity. Candles have been symbolic of life and resurrection since ancient times, and therefore closely associated with returning spring and the growth of crops and creatures. In the days of the early Church's Christmastide and of winter, was the time when people's thoughts turned to spring.
From the eleventh century the Church's candles for the coming season were paraded and consecrated at Candlemas. These were always costly real beeswax candles, because tradition held that bees came from Heaven. The procession and blessing of the candles at this time went back to the pagan torch processions which had wound about the fields bringing light to invigorate the soil before the spring sowing.
Being the only form of domestic lighting, the cheaper tallow candles and rush lights had scores of superstitions attached to them. According to the flame's colour or how it flickered, they would foretell who would live, prosper, marry or die during the year. In some places the Yule candle was relit for a family feast on Candlemas Night to mark the dedication of Spring. In Dorset, a large candle was often a gift, and the family would have cakes and ale or punch by its light until it went out. Children were allowed to stay up late on this night, if on no other.
But farming folk had to be practical too, February food was lean and February work hard. Thomas Tusser, the great verse recorder of the farming year, pointed out vigorously in his instructions for the months that if a man failed to till and to keep his working stock in good condition, that would impoverish both his land and himself, although marling and manuring were necessary as well. The farmer was to plough and to sow beans and peas to dry against next winter. Mustard was to be sown in new-turned soil, and hemp seed sown to strangle nettles. Vines and osiers should be pruned and replaced if necessary, while land to be left for hay should now be manured. Barley for malt and seed corn should be threshed, except for a small quantity to give the labourers indoor work if the weather turned sour. Land should be fenced with hedges, and standing willows planted to shade the cattle.
Such end-of-winter tasks bring home vividly how closely every family in a society without shops depended on the new springing of seed and the rising of sap in the local fields. They also illustrated how deeply the folk rituals which accompanied them were embedded in the way of life of country folk.