Wikipedia is just too cool. The encyclopedias and hyperlinks are a perfect marriage. So let's investigate the various holidays that have been invented to celebrate this cross-quarter day between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Most of you are familiar with the American Groundhog Day festivities, where a poor captive whistlepig (what a great name!) is annually tested for opaqueness, or rather his ability to produce an umbra. It's pure ceremony. No one really believes that these marmots have any control over weather.1 It's done in good humor. And it's done for the same reasons that people all over the world celebrate this day of the year: winter is almost over!
In Celtic Irish lore, it's a serpent that comes out of the ground and either casts a shadow or does not. Today is the ancient Celtic holiday Imbolc and is dedicated to the goddess Brigid, the goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft.
When the Christians came along, they did their usual trick of inventing a saint with exactly the same name, same responsibilities, and festivals. Saint Brigid is Ireland's second most important saint, after St. Patrick. Of course, the Christians aren't content to leave myths as myths, so they claimed that Brigid was an actual person who actually lived. She has official birth and death years and lots of detailed stories about pirates and jeweled swords. Of course the stories contradict each other and their authorship is unknown. Big surprise there. Anyway, here are some recipes for a bread and beef feast to celebrate St. Brigid's day today.
In the Roman Catholic church, Candlemas is traditionally celebrated 40 days after Christmas, taking it's name from a tradition of priests to bless the year's candles on February 2, and is sometimes called the "Purification of the Virgin". And the reason it is 40 days after Christmas is, quoting from Wikipedia:
Under Mosaic law, a mother who had given birth to a man-child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover she was to remain for three and thirty days "in the blood of her purification."
You're guess is as good as mine as to what that means. 7 and 33 are important biblical numbers, so why shouldn't 40 be? And it's not really 40 days after Christmas, it's 39. But maybe the day of birth and the day of the purification are both counted. Like many ancient traditions intended to prevent disease (like not eating pork), what we know today about germs and medicine make it sound pretty ridiculous.
From this page on Simeon the Righteous, it sounds like the tradition is more of a Jewish version of Baptism, where a newborn is presented to the Temple to be blessed. That's why Candlemas' official name is "The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple". How beeswax candles got involved is not clear, but today is the day to take your candles down to the local chapel and get them blessed for use in 2007. If I was more of a prankster and less apathetic, I'd take a bunch of lightbulbs down to the local church and claim to be an orthodox catholic and, since lightbulbs are the new candles, that I want the priest to bless all my lightbulbs for the year.
I leave you with this quote from the Candlemas wikipedia page. It made me laugh because it's so similar to other silly superstitions that the Spanish have.
In France, Candlemas (French: La Chandeleur) is celebrated with críªpes, which must be eaten only after eight p.m. If the cook can flip a críªpe while holding a coin in the other hand, the family is assured of prosperity throughout the coming year.
1Of course the same people believe that a guy that may or may not have lived and died two thousand years ago has complete control over the weather and will change it if asked politely enough by unvoiced thoughts inside their own head.