Candlemas (also spelled Candlemass), celebrated on February 2nd is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Polish folk tradition, the other title for this day was Matka Boska Gromnicza, “Our Lady of the Thunder Candle,” appeared around 1471 in Płock and began to be used interchangeably with the Feast of the Purification.
Women from the village of Modlnicy in procession with their gromnicza.
An inseparable element of celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Candlemas in Polish tradition is blessing specially made and decorated candles during the service, called gromnicza, meaning thunder, because the candles were used to try and deter storms and lightening that were generally preceded by thunder. How were these candles made?
In old Poland, when bees were tended in the wild in the forests, the candles were made only from pure beeswax as it was considered the purest of substances, the fruit of the unrelenting labor of thousands of workers of God’s creation. Beeswax candles burned clean and pure, smelling like flowers and honey. Very often the color of the candle could vary anywhere from golden to brown, depending on what type of flowers the bees had been foraging on. The beeswax was collected over the course of the year and even though difficult and time consuming, handmaking the candles was often undertaken by various societies or brotherhoods to burn in church for the glory of God but also to make and sell or to gift family and friends on the feast of Candlemas on February 2nd.
Extracting honey to reach the wax comb in village of Momoty in southeast Poland. Author photo. 1992.
The candles were made using a wooden wheel called in some places a kołowrot (not to be confused with a spinning wheel also called kołowrot) hung on a wooden shaft so that the wheel could move freely. Nails or hooks were evenly hammered across the flat wheel. Depending on the size of the candles to be made, appropriately sized wicks were attached to the nails. In the early years, the wicks made of linen (and later of cotton) by the women on a drop spindle. Some of the candles could be over a yard long requiring 6 or 8 threads twisted together to provide a proper sized wick.
In a room that was not given to sudden drafts or changes in temperature, or the wax would solidify too soon, hot beeswax that had been heated in a copper pitcher to the right temperature was poured ever so slowly along the wick so that the wax ran down it evenly, requiring a very steady hand. Each candle was made from numerous pouring’s along the length of the wick, time and again until a desired width was obtained. When all the candles had been poured, hopefully while each candle was still slightly warm (or, if cooled too much, one technique was to place the candles under a pierzyna, a homemade goosedown comforter, to warm them again) it was rolled between two wooden planks with just the right pressure to level them into a uniform round appearance. Time consuming and labor intensive!
Artisan in Poland utilizing the pouring method to make candles. You can see more photographs of the tradition of pouring wax to make candles here: izbaskarbow.blogspot.com/2016/01/tradycyjny-wyrob-swiec-z-wosku.html
Unlike today, when most taper candles are about 12 inches long, the gromnicza candles were made much longer, some over a yard long, others shorter but long enough to last through a lifetime of being lit during difficult times and moments. A blessed gromnicza had the power to ward off all evil and misfortunes, and believed to protect against storms and lightening and attacks by wolves. It was lit only during special circumstances but also during processions, a serious illness, life crisis, and in the hands of a dying person or at their bedside to ease their death.
It must be noted, too, that at one time the candle played an important role in in the days when purification of a woman delivered of a child was still a custom not just in Poland but among most of the Slavs. Often forgotten is that Candlemas day celebrates the Purification of Mary after the birth of Christ and that tradition lived on in many countries for centuries.
Forty days after the birth of a child, the mother (considered “unclean”) entered church through a side entrance. In her hand she held a lit candle, a gromnicza. The priest sprinkled her with holy water, whereby she could enter the main part of the church, pray cleansing prayers with the priest in front of the altar and, depending on local custom, walk around the altar with her lit candle. Having been purified, she could now rejoin the rest of the congregation at the mass.
Making of gromnicza 2022 at St. Casimir Church, Buffalo, NY . Photo courtesy of Irene Woszczak.
It was customary to tie green twigs of boxwood or juniper or myrtle (myrtus communis) to the candle with a piece of freshly combed flax, but in later years it was replaced with white or blue ribbons, the color most associated with Mary, to whom the day is dedicated. In the Lublin region, a candle was decorated with koraliki, i.e., coral beads. Once decorated, the candle was taken to church, where it was blessed.
When not being used the candles were kept on the front wall of the room behind holy pictures, much like the Easter palms or placed in a candleholder and kept on the family home altar where it was lit on all the Marian holidays, to honor Mary, and on any occasion where her intercession was wanted and needed.
With the passage of time, the craft of beekeeping declined as did the traditional makers of the candles. Candles began to be manufactured from stearine and paraffin, which were cheaper and even brighter to the eye when lit. But do they smell like honey and wild flowers from the meadow?
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.