Celebrated on 2 February, the Christian feast of Candlemas commemorates the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the ritual purification of Mary after giving birth. In the Jewish faith, women are considered unclean after they have given birth and must be purified, a practice also reflected in the Christian faith in previous centuries, but which has since fallen out of fashion.
During the visit to the temple, Jesus was blessed by the old man Simeon, who recognised his holiness and said that he could now die in peace, having seen the saviour of the world. These poetic words, known as the Nunc dimittis, have been set to music by many composers (hear the setting by Charles Villiers Stanford below), and are sung at evensong in churches throughout the world.
In rural 19th century England, the church and secular calendars were closely aligned, and religious feasts like this would often be marked with secular fairs. These fairs would have many entertainments, distractions and stalls, and, as Hardy writes, would often be the place where agricultural workers signed contracts for the coming year. One of the best descriptions of such a fair comes at the beginning of another of Hardy's novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Candlemas was also believed in folklore to be a yardstick by which people could judge what the weather of the coming months would be like, as the following rhyme suggests:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go winter, and come not again.