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As Former Things Grow Old

On losing Candlemas.

There was a few years ago an article that drew some attention in one of the light “business” magazines, Fortune or Business Insider maybe, the substance of which was that peasants of the Middle Ages were clobbering the moderns on the time-off front. While the U.S. has eleven federal holidays—and, in truth, most of us work on at least half of those—your average medieval clod-buster had some three or four dozen days set aside for whooping it up. I first read this before I had children and learned that there are no real days off, and to reckon no man, if not happy, at least reposeful until he is dead.

Even so, I do sometimes cogitate on that article, particularly the damp dead days between New Year’s and the beginning of Lent. My wife’s birthday is on January 30 (Charles King and Martyr), which gives a little variety to the monotony of weeks; sometimes there’s exciting weather. Early February is when Maryland tends to get its snows, and sometimes there are ice storms that turn the forest into a great glass palace. These can give a whiff of minor magic to the gray month, the sort of departure from the ordinary that the ancient and medieval chroniclers would note. (Year of Grace 2022: In February, the dogwood tree, already budding pinkly by the garden’s edge, was completely encased in ice. Armed heathens were seen in Baltimore. The Astros won the World Series.)

But mostly there is just mud and gloom. Deer season is over. The garden wants cleaning, and the kids don’t want to go outside. The winds and greening fields and quickening scents of March are far ahead, not to mention Easter and the excitement of the academic year’s end that remains residually in every adult’s heart, no matter how long he has been out of school. Valentine’s Day is a bummer, no real holiday at all—the Christmas commercialization without any of the things people like about Christmas, like time off, good food, presents. At best, February is for getting an early start on your taxes.

Your late medieval peasant, on the other hand, knew that he had a month after Epiphany to get his digestion and his liver in order before Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification. Already established in the fifth century, the holiday had a thousand years to develop the accouterments of parades, mystery plays, and public dances. The laity would join in the famous blessing of candles and procession, singing an antiphon of Saint John Damascene and an antiphonal rendition of the Song of Simeon, Nunc dimittis. After Mass, he’d take in the entertainments and sup heavily; so the Christmas season was properly ended, and the great cycle of Gesimatide prepared.

Our own glum era began with the English Reformation. By 1548, Candlemas processions had been suppressed, although Cranmer’s collect for the day is a straightforward translation from the Roman collect: “Almighty and everliving God, we humbly beseech thy Majesty, that as thy only begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” And the old trappings were remembered into the Civil Wars; Robert Herrick, no papist, writes a carol remembering the end of Christmas:

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show.
The holly hitherto did sway:
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter Day,
Or Easter’s Eve appear.

Then youthful box, which now has grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisp-ed yew.
When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin,
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift, thus times do shift;
Each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, new things succeed,
As former things grow old.

It took the arrival of the New Mass to finish off the memory of the feast as anything but a name in the missal and to usher in the joyless February of the neoterics. We no longer know what to do with this month.

In archaeology and anthropology, one of the sure signs of cataclysm is the reemergence of apsidal buildings—that is to say, buildings that are shaped like a U, having a rounded back wall—which shows that there has been such a disruption in social continuity that the skill of laying masonry corners has fallen out of general knowledge. Time and architecture bend in on themselves, and the great, sophisticated palace societies of the Bronze Age Mediterranean collapse, leaving a scurf of U-shaped stables and houses perched on their sunken ruins. Nor is this kind of desperate alienation from the concrete and recent past consigned to the mists of antiquity. Authentic Cambodian food was preserved only in the Khmer diaspora; after a generation of famine and red terror, the people of Cambodia forgot how to cook.

We already live in a dark age. The ancient structures that ordered time and space, plotted human life from birth to death, have been toppled and the stones scattered. We have forgotten the names of plants and stars; we have forgotten the songs our fathers’ fathers sang; we have forgotten how to track time and to pray. The Reformation, the revolutions, the world wars, the council—all played a part. The question is what we can pick up and keep, whether the wall we have been building in these sere years will, curving, bring us back to where we started.

Thus times do shift, thus times do shift;
Each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, new things succeed,
As former things grow old.