February already! How the year hurries on. I tear January from my calendar with a sigh. The new year’s fresh supply of months is being consumed at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago there seemed time enough for everything, but now . . .
Candlemas (February 2) is the last of the Nativity celebrations. You can read more about its meaning and customs in last year’s post, Consumed by Love. For me it is a day to remember the preciousness of the time we are given. Like the people’s candles traditionally blessed in the Candlemas rite, the days to come are made to be used up. As I wrote last year, “a candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing.”
For Robert Herrick, 17th-century poet and priest, our temporal condition was a recurring theme. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is his best-known line, but his poem for Candlemas Eve is my favorite. The changing of seasonal decorations in houses and churches is an emblem of the human condition: Thus times do shift . . . new things succeed, as former things grow old.
DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
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 hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped 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 ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.
Herrick’s poem was set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Here is a lovely version of it by English folksinger Kate Rusby.