I still like to look at old calendars where life was regulated by seasons and traditional festivals and labours. The seasons were marked by Solstices and Equinoxes, which are easier to remember today. But in earlier times, when such days were marked by feast days or religious holidays, the celebrations and days had more poetic associations, often based on the Christian calendar, which superimposed itself on pagan festivals. For instance, the festivals which marked the beginning of the seasons were known as “quarter days.” These were “Lady Day” (25 March) the feast day of the Annunciation, then Midsummer Day (or St. John’s day) on 24 June, then Michaelmas Day, or the feast day of St. Michael (29 September) and finally Christmas Day on the 25th of December.
The pagan calendar was often represented by the Wheel of the Year, and it identified these special times or days. (I found this particular one online with no source or credit noted.)
The “cross-quarter days” were the days at the mid-point between the quarter days. So one celebrated Candlemas on 2 February, May Day on 1st May, Lammas on the 1st of August and Hallowmas on 1st November. There were other days, such as Martinmas celebrated on the 11th of November, as well as others, too numerous to mention. These festivals punctuated human activities throughout the year. Many of these old festivals have been superseded by secular observances. For instance, the obscure Candlemas is also known as Ground Hog Day, and much of the lore associated with weather predictions on Candlemas are now attributed to the ground hog and whether or not he sees his shadow. Curiously, Candlemas was also the last day to clean out the greenery of Christmas decorations and anything associated with Christmas. They must have been pretty dry by then!
Candlemas, refers to candles, of course. It was also the feast day of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of Mary. A marvelous woodcut (1503-05) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) illustrates the event.
According to Hebraic tradition, a woman who had given birth to a son would present herself and the child at the temple forty days after the birth for purification. This was accompanied with the sacrifice of a lamb, but for poorer folk, such as Mary and Joseph, a pair or turtledoves stood in for the lamb. In Dürer’s print, the holy man Simeon receives the child, recognizes him as the Messiah, and sings a marvelous canticle, usually referred to as the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-32). The traditional Gregorian chant is presented here preceded by the Antiphon, Salva Nos.
So what about the candles? Well, there is more to Candlemas than one could write about in a short blog. It seems that the day’s association with fire goes back to pre-Christian days, and is also associated with the coming of spring, even if the equinox occurs a month and a half later. It might have to do with the recognition of light as the advent of Jesus. But it seems the old pagan festival also featured fire, and the return of warmth to the earth. Candles were blessed at church on Candlemas day. I remember we brought the blessed candles home. They were lit during fierce summer thunderstorms to protect the house. In some cultures, it was also traditional to clean the hearth and light a new fire in it. It seems that rituals associated with St. Bridgid’s day (1st February) became conflated with Candlemas.
“Crepes dsc07085” by David Monniaux – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Now for the pancakes. These are also associated with Candlemas, and may have to do with the golden disc representing the sun, or with the bread left for St. Bridgid on her feast day. At any rate, pancakes or crêpes have long been associated with the day. Folklore held that the woman would hold a coin in her left hand while handling the griddle for the crêpes in the right hand. When she flipped the crêpe successfully with that one hand, good fortune would come to her.
Here is a simple but delicious crepe batter which can be made in minutes. It’s made from ingredients that everyone has on hand
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp butter, melted
1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the eggs. Gradually add in the milk and water, stirring to combine. Add the salt and butter; beat until smooth.
2. Heat a lightly oiled griddle or frying pan over medium high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each crepe. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly.
3. Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is light brown. Loosen with a spatula, turn and cook the other side. Serve hot.
Yield: 8 crepes
The crêpes can either be stuffed with fruit, or with a savoury mixture of some kind. The buckwheat crêpes go beautifully with ham or mushrooms, or something like that. In Canada, maple syrup is de rigueur, especially if you are French Canadian.
I remember my grandmother made a kind of crêpe that was cooked in about half an inch of sizzling lard. No doubt she had learned this method from her mother. It is this kind of crêpe that was traditionally cooked in sugar shacks, although another version uses rendered salt pork.
My mother compiled a book of the (extended) Boulet family recipes in about 1983-84, and my aunt Claire provided grandmother’s crêpe recipe. The recipe does not specify the amount of lard used. I remember there was always a container of it on the back of the wooden stoves they used back then. Because the lard was at a high temperature, the crêpe absorbed very little of it. Here is that recipe (translated by me).
8 eggs, lightly beaten
½ tsp salt
4 cups of milk
2 cups of flour
Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle. Put the slightly beaten eggs in that well. Add the liquid and whisk everything together. Use lard for frying.
Put ¼ cup of the batter in a the preheated skillet with the sizzling lard, spreading it evenly and quickly.
Note: During the course of the day, the leftover crêpes were left to cool. When we got hungry, we still went for the crêpes. We would take a crêpe, and we would spread white or brown sugar on it, and rolled it up. This was a delicious snack for us! When I think of that today, I admire the great patience my mother had to make piles of crêpes for our breakfasts on certain days.
We don’t eat like that anymore, but there was no crêpe quite like it! My mother preferred to make regular pancakes, but grandmother’s crêpes are still fondly remembered.
© Roger H. Boulet, 2015