Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Snowdrops and Candlemas – 2

It is often claimed that snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are associated with the celebration of Candlemas, 2 Febuary,  the feast commemorating ‘the Presentation of Christ in the Temple’, or the ‘Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’.  However, it is probable that the association between the flowers and the feast results from the name Candlemas bells, which has been recorded from Essex, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and simply refers to the fact that snowdrops flower at about this time.  In an article ‘The Holy Family and Candlemas’, in Oremus (Westminster Cathedral Magazine), edition no. 255 (February 2020), the writer makes no mention of snowdrops being used at the festival, but states:

‘Snowdrops are known as Candlemas flowers, because they often bloom early in the year, sometimes even before Candlemas itself …  Other people used to believe that these flowers should not be brought into the house because they were associated with death.  However, it is believed in more recent times that these flowers symbolize Jesus as “the light of the world”.’

D.C. Watts in his Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Names and their Origin gives both Candlemas bells and purification-flower as names for snowdrop, and explains:

‘The snowdrop was dedicated to the Purification of the Virgin, otherwise Candlemas, 2 February, when it was the custom for young women dressed in white to walk in procession at the feast’.

Stuart Phillips  in his Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic & Lore (2012) provides similar information, adds the name procession-flowers, and states that ‘taking a bowl of snowdrops into the house at Candlemas was said to be giving it a “white purification”.’  This statement seems to be derived from Margaret Baker’s Discovering the Folklore of Plants (1996), where she mentions the ‘purification’ as being practised in Shropshire and Herefordshire.

In  2019 churches in London were visited between 2 and 6 February to see if any had snowdrops decorating them, but none had (see an earlier note on this website).  On 2 February 2020 a number of churches and two Roman Catholic cathedrals (Westminster Cathedral and St George’s Cathedral, Southwark) were visited, but again no snowdrops were seen.  Similarly on 2 February 2022 Brompton Oratory and two other Catholic churches were visited, but again no snowdrops.

Thus it appears that any link between snowdrops and Candlemas is tenuous, and at present snowdrops are not brought into churches for the festival.

Image:  snowdrops in garden of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham, January 2020.

Note:  On 4 February 2023 five Anglican churches (St Barnabas Pimlico, St Luke’s Sydney Street,  St Mary’s Bourne Street, St Philip’s Earls Court Road, and  St Stephen’s Gloucester Road) and one Roman Catholic church (Brompton Oratory) were visited, but there was no sign of any snowdrops in any of them.

Edited 10 October 2023.