Monday, February 2, 2009

Festivals & Celebrations - La Chandeleur

Today is crêpe day in France. Oddly, it's known as la Chandeleur - the candle festival. Here's the story:

First, it was the Roman celebration of Pan (or Faunus), the Greek god of shepherds and flocks, (the one often pictured playing a flute whose hindquarters, legs, and horns resemble those of a goat). The Romans recognized Pan as the protector of fields, groves, and wooded, mountain glens and connected him to the coming of spring and a healthy harvest. Romans danced throughout the night in his honor, careful to keep their torches alight to welcome Pan back from the slumber of winter.

As Christianity swept through Europe, religious leaders renamed and repurposed the pagan holidays. In 472, Pope Gelase I renamed the festival Candlemas, proclaiming it the day of the presentation of the baby Jesus, forty days after birth. (It was customary in ancient times for new mothers and their babies to remain sequestered for 40 days.)

As the festival to Pan gave way to Candlemas, so too did torches give way to candles. Tall, tapered candles, les chandelles in French, took on the symbolism of Jesus as the bringer of light. Candlelit processions were organized from churches at sunset on February 2nd. Each person carried home his or her own candle, keeping it lit along the way. The family would then feast on crêpes, their round shape evoking the return of the sun after the dark of winter, another co-opted pagan symbol. The peasants believed that if they did not eat crêpes on la Chandeleur, their harvests would not be plentiful in the coming year.

Over the years, money entered the symbolism: some wrapped a gold coin in the first crêpe and left it on the top of an armoire until the following Candlemas when they gave the coin to the poor. Today, many people make their crêpes one-handed, flipping the crêpe pan while holding a coin in the other hand. If the cook manages to catch the crêpe, the family is assured prosperity throughout the year.

But most of us just see la Chandeleur as a nice opportunity to eat a lot of crêpes with family and friends. We start with crêpes stuffed with meat and grilled vegetables or cheese, and finish with crêpes made with nutella and banana, or sugar and lemon, or fruit confiture (jam), all topped with lots and lots of chantilly (whipped cream). The more you eat, they say, the more prosperous your year will be!

There are many French proverbs associated with la Chandeleur. This one is reminiscent of Groundhog Day in the US and Canada (could there be a connection?):

A la Chandeleur, l’hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur,
A la Chandeleur, le jour croit de deux heures.
Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte,
Rosée a la Chandeleur, hiver a sa dernière heure.

On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens,
On Candlemas, the day grows by two hours.
Candlemas covered in snow, forty days lost,
Dew on Candlemas, winter is at its final hour.


Le Petit Journal, cover page, February 1911. Le Petit Journal was a Parisian daily published from 1863 to 1944.


  1. Really enjoyed learning about the background to la Chanteleur.

  2. Thanks, Liz! I always appreciate hearing from another francophile! All best!