Candlemas: Our Lady of the Thunderbolt

By Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent

Candlemas, occurring 40 days after Christmas, is officially known by the Church as the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It commemorates the Jewish ritual according to which the Blessed Mother was purified after giving birth and presented her Baby to the Temple. But for ages, it has been associated throughout Europe with candles and the Blessed Virgin, likened to the candle that gave birth to the Light of the World. On that day churches were ablaze with candlelight, and the candles to be used in the liturgy throughout the year were blessed.

Just as the Catholic Feast of the Assumption (August 15) is known in Poland by the folkloric term “Święto Matki Boskiej Zielnej” (Our Lady of the Greenery), so too Candlemas is called “Święto Matki Boskiej Gromnicznej.” That can be translated as Our Lady of the Thunderbolt Candle. The Polish word “grom” is a clap of thunder, hence the “gromnica” is the thunderclap candle and “gromniczna” is its adjectival form.

For ages, Poles have flocked to church on February 2, bringing with them the tall beeswax candles which would be used for ritual purposes in the home throughout the year. During Holy Mass, the candles were blessed and the faithful did their best to carry their lighted candles home with them – not always an easy task in blustery weather. Once home, the head of the household would use the burning candle to trace a soot-stained cross on the ceiling beam of the cottage. He would also take the lighted candle to every nook and cranny of the cottage and visit his outbuildings as well in the belief that its radiance would ward of the forces of darkness. After the flame was blown out, it was believed that inhaling the candle smoke would prevent coals and sore throats.

As its name implies, the “gromnica” was believed to protect against thunderstorms and was placed in the window to keep lightning bolts away. This writer recalls how terrified his late maternal grandmother, Katarzyna Kupczyńska, had been of violent thunderstorms. As a child, I would often visit my Babcia in the tiny beer, wine and sweet shop she ran in Detroit’s then predominantly Polish suburb of Hamtramck. Once, when it started thundering, she closed the shop and hurriedly took me by the hand to her home two doors away. There she lit a “gromnica,” hoping the storm would soon pass over. I was only seven or eight at the time and no longer recall whether Babcia simply made the Sign of the Cross or said a prayer, but Polish prayer books often contain a “Modlitwa w czasie burzy” (Prayer during Storms).

The lighted “gromnica” also had another important function: it was placed in the hands of people on their deathbed and of those who had just died. When not in use, the candle was kept behind a holy picture over the bed as a kind of memento mori, a reminder that no one can escape death. The thunderbolt candle was also believed to protect against wolves. Different Polish painters have depicted the Blessed Mother holding a pack of wolves at bay with a “gromnica.”

Although the Feast of the Three Kings (January 6) is the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and some take down their home Christmas cribs, trees and other Yuletide decorations soon thereafter, to this day Candlemas is the final cut-off point. On that day the season’s last Christmas carols are sung in church. But in the olden days, roving caroler-masqueraders continued to pay visits, although their attire and antics by then had become less Nativity and more Mardi Gras oriented.