For Candlemas this year I’m revisiting the Navette, a biscuit I first came across seven years ago thanks to some kind Californian friends who brought me a packet of them from a holiday in Nice. Everywhere else in France the first choice of treat to celebrate it would be a pancake but in Provence they eat this special type of biscuit whose name means “little ships”. They look a little like a little ship too or at least a primitive sailboat.
The legend that gave rise to the invention of the Navette is almost certainly apocryphal: the voyage of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (or in some versions three Marys) to the coast of Southern France. Civic pride probably played a part in the eagerness of medieval Christians to link their city’s or region’s history to that of the early Church in some way, but I admit that the reason the biscuits have been associated with Candlemas is not clear to me (answers on an e-postcard!) These are made to the classic fleur d’oranger recipe popular in Marseilles. With their subtle citrus notes, it’s the biscuit equivalent of a Lady Grey tea.
Aesthetically, Candlemas must be one of the most memorable feasts of the Christian year even if it’s not quite in the same league as Easter and Christmas. I know I’ll never forget the wonder I felt the first time I celebrated it with a sea of glimmering lights in Durham cathedral. In the medieval Church, Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas season with a special procession and the blessing of candles commemorating Mary’s “churching” (i.e. the rites of purification prescribed for Jewish mothers forty days after childbirth) and Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The child’s parents were obliged to bring an offering with them and their choice of pigeons or turtledoves shows they were not wealthy people. To a casual onlooker, and probably to Mary and Joseph themselves, their entrance with the newborn Yeshua might have seemed uneventful, but God prompted Simeon and Anna to recognise its significance and speak of the child’s extraordinary future, encouraging and preparing them for what was to come. It’s also the occasion for the beautiful prayer of Simeon, now referred to as the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peaceLuke 2:29-32
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel…
Clearly Simeon had already had an inkling that he would have a part to play in welcoming the Messiah, but for all we know Anna may only have recognised hers in the moment it arrived. It’s moving to think of these two elderly servants of the Lord – both prophets in some sense – waiting their whole lives for this meeting. How easily they might have missed it if their focus had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the Navette carries a message for us today, and if it can be linked to the celebration of Candlemas, it might be something to do with being attentive to divine appointments in our own lives, wherever and however we find them in our comings and goings.
More on celebrating Le Chandeleur (or “Crepe Day”) in France.
My favourite discovery this week (and just in time for St. Valentine’s Day…) send a medieval postcard!
A beautiful blog post from the Clerk of Oxford on the history and customs of medieval Candlemas, and some music to listen to in celebration of the feast. You could also take a look at this sweet film for kids or Michael Card’s Now That I’ve Held Him in My Arms – both retellings of the story from the perspective of Simeon.
If Candlemas be Fair and Bright… Like St Swithin’s Day in folklore, Candlemas also doubles as Groundhog Day for some people as a forecast for the weather!
If you would like to see more entries more regularly and help keep this bestiary free of ads, you are welcome to contribute to the Biscuit Jar.