Candlemas derived its name from the lighted candles held by participants in the celebration of the purification of the Virgin Mary. The holiday was also known in parts of England as the Wives' Feast Day.
In the archives of the Society of Antiquaries of London, there existed a proclamation issued by Henry VIII which stated: "On Candlemas Daye it shall be declared that the bearynge of candels is done in the memorie of Christe, the spirituall lyghte, when Simeon dyd prophecye, as it is redde in the churche that daye."
Thomas Bacon, in his book, Reliques of Rome published in London on 1563, stated that "Sometyme when the Romaines by great myght and royal power conquered all the world, they were so proude, that they forgat God, and made them divers gods after their own lust. And so among all they had a god that they called Mars, that had been tofore a notable knight in battayle; and so they prayed to hym for help, and for that they would speed the better of this knight, the people prayed and did great worship to his mother, that was called Februa, after which woman much people have opinion that the moneth February is called. Wherefore the second daie of thys moneth is Candlemass Day. The Romaines this night went about the city of Rome with torches and candles brenning in worship of this woman Februa, for hope to have the more helpe and succore of her sonne Mars. Then there was a Pope that was called Sergius, and when he saw Christian people drawn to this false maumetry and untrue belief, he thought to undo this foule use and custom, and turn it unto God's worship and our Lady's, and gave commandment that all Christian people should come to church and offer up a candle brennyng, in the worship that they did to this woman Februa, and do worship to our Lady and to her sonne our Lord Jesus Christ. So that now this feast is solemnly hallowed thorowe all Christendome. And every Christian man and woman of covenable age is bound to come to church and offer up their candles, as though they were bodily with our Lady, hopyng for this reverence and worship, that they do to our Ladye, to have a great rewarde in heaven, &c."
Nicholas Dorcaster, in his 1554 volume, Doctrine Of The Masse Booke presented the following service for the "hallowing of candles upon Candlemass Day": The Prayer. ‘O Lord Jesu Christ, I-blesse thou this creature of a waxen taper at our humble supplication, and by the vertue of the holy crosse pour thou into it an heavenly benediction; that as thou halt graunted it unto man's use for the expelling of darkness, it may receave such a strength and blessing, thorow the token of the holy crosse, that in what places soever it be lighted or set, the Devil may avoid out of those habitations, and tremble for feare, and fly away discouraged, and presume no more to unquiet them that serve thee, who with God,’ &c. Then follow other prayers, in which occur these passages : ‘We humbly beseech thee, that thou wilt vouchsafe + to blesse and sanctify these candels prepared unto the uses of men, and health of bodies and soules, as wel on the land as in the waters.’ ‘Vouchsafe + to blesse and + sanctifye, and with the candle of heavenly benediction, to lighten these tapers; which we thy servants taking in the honour of thy name (when they are lighted) desire to beare,’ &c. "’Here let the candles be sprinkled with holy water.’ Concluding with this rubrick:- ‘When the halowyng of the candels is done, let the candels be lighted and distributed.
In the Country Almanack of 1676 the following verse was included for the month of February:
Foul weather is no news, hail, rain, and snow
Are now expected, and esteem'd no woe;
Nay, 'tis an omen bad, the yeoman say,
If Phoebus shews his face the second day.
In the verse above, Phoebus would refer to the sun. Apollo was considered the god of the sun, and Phoebus was another name for Apollo. And so, if the sun were to show its face on the 2nd day of February, it would be taken as a bad omen for foul weather to continue.
The 2nd of February was also known as Imbolc, variously Imbolg, in Celtic communities. The Irish Celts honored their goddess, Brigid on this day while the French Celts celebrated St. Blaize. Both were versions of the "Great Mother Goddess", and were believed to promote fertility, creativity and healing.
The name Imbolc was derived from words meaning "ewe's milk". It was believed that on this day, pregnant ewes began lactating ~ a sign that winter was nearing its end.
If larks were heard to be singing on Imbolc, it was believed that the spring would come soon.
The Vates, soothsayers of the celts, used Imbolc for a divination using the live, beating heart of a bull. This custom is known to have taken place on the Isle of Anglesey, off the coast of Wales. The vate would thrust his knife into the chest of a live bull, pulling its heart out as it continued to beat. He would then divine the future in the way the heart convulsed.
The people of the Germanic regions began to use Candlemas Day as a day for prognostication. In order to confirm if Phoebus showed his face on that day, they chose the badger or hedgehog to act as a witness to the event. It was a well known fact that animals such as the hedgehog or badger would awaken from their winter hibernations around this time of year because the warmth of the sun would beckon to them in their burrows.
The German, Swiss and Dutch settlers who emigrated to the New World through the Eighteenth Century found the groundhog, commonly known as the whistlepig, to be more numerous than badgers or hedgehogs, and therefore the prognosticator of choice became the groundhog, and Candlemas Day became more popular as Groundhog Day.
In 1886 a group of interested individuals established a club known as the "Inner Circle" at Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania, making it their business to raise a groundhog specifically for the purpose of making a prognostication each February 2nd. That groundhog was given the name of Punxsatawney Phil. Ever since, on the second day of February, thousands of people converge on the small town in north central Pennsylvania and the members of the Inner Circle pull Phil from his burrow to make his decision of whether or not he sees his shadow.