Musings on Candlemas, Bees, & Honey
By Betsy May
from the Jan/Feb 09 issue of The Essential Herbal
With the arrival of February comes a relatively unknown holiday. February 2 is known in various cultures and religions as “Candlemas Day.” It is the Feast day of The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary took baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth, a typical custom of the time. It was here that the prophet Simeon predicated that Jesus would “become the light of the world.” In modern day, in some Roman Catholic churches, the priest blesses beeswax candles with holy water on Candlemas Day. These candles are then taken home and used throughout the year. Some people suspect that Candlemas Day was an attempt by the Romans to Christianize the Gaelic festival of Imbolc. Imbolc was celebrated at the same time of the year and is sometimes called St. Brigid’s Day. St. Brigid is, ironically, associated with scared flames and holy wells and springs. We also have Groundhog’s Day which was another evolution of Candlemas, also celebrated on the same day. Ancient cultures believed that upcoming weather could be predicted on this day.
There are many different cultural customs associated with celebrating Candlemas Day besides the blessing of candles. In a high school French class I learned that in France Candlemas Day is celebrated by making crepes or very thin pancakes. These tasty round, golden orbs are considered symbols of the sun during one of the darkest times of the year. One of my favorite memories of my adolescent years is when I persuaded my grandparents to eat crepes by candlelight. I can still see them sitting at the dimly lit table, a “Charlie Brown” poinsettia leftover from Christmas in the center of the table, eating crepes with a snow-like dusting of powdered sugar on top. (see end of article for recipe)
In addition to making crepes, I use Candlemas Day as a day to make my own beeswax candles and to take stock of all of my other candles, trim wicks, and clean candle holders. In the evening I try to use only candlelight. Life by the soft glow of candlelight is a much more enchanting place, not to mention the fact that mirrors are much more forgiving! On evenings such as these, I’m reminded of the little pleasures that get lost in the pursuit of modern convenience. On a more personal level, I always re-read my favorite novel of all time, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. It is a must read. The novel chronicles a young girl’s journey in the search for true motherhood, following her into the magical world of three sisters who not only keep bees and make honey, but who have created a world of nurturing ritual and worship.
This of course brings us to honey, that sweet syrupy liquid-gold medicine and food of the Gods. Zeus, the Father of the Gods, is said to have been raised on honey and goat’s milk. Honey has been used for thousands of years, at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians. They used honey as part of the mummification process to embalm bodies. Prized by herbalists, honey has many medicinal properties including being antiseptic and antibacterial. It can be used topically to treat wounds and small cuts as well as internally for sore throats, coughs, and allergies.
“The dandelions and buttercups gild all the lawn; the drowsy bee tumbles among the clover tops and sweetens all to me.” J.R. Lowell
Because it is astringent and a natural moisturizer, honey can also be used as a natural cosmetic. Both Jeanne Rose and Rosemary Gladstar recommend using honey as a face mask or “honey pat.” According to Jeanne, the acid in the honey helps to get rid of blackheads and blemishes. First, make sure the face is completely dry (this is essential) and that the hair is pulled back away from the face. Gently cover the face with honey and pat it lightly. Rinse well with warm water. This facial will create a warm and lasting glow! Rosemary also talks about how her mentor, the great herbalist Juliette de Baricli Levy, grinds herb seeds into meal and mixes them with honey, then leaves them in the sun to dry. These “honey cakes” can be given as treats to little children. Herbal infused honeys are easily made by adding medicinal herbs such as ginseng, garlic, or ginger root to a jar of honey and letting it set for several weeks or months. To speed up the process, gently heat the honey and herbs several times, letting it cool between each heating. The herb itself can be removed from the honey and eaten as a delicious medicinal treat and the honey can be savored by the spoonful, used to sweeten a medicinal tea, or slathered on a piece of toast. The best honey to use, especially for the treatment of allergies, is probably local honey, but I also prize my honey that I got from Mayans living in the jungle in Mexico on my vacation this past summer. There are also other yummy “gourmet” sounding honeys that I’m longing to try such as avocado, blueberry, lavender, pumpkin blossom, and sage.
In addition to producing honey, bees also leave behind tiny golden grains in their footprints, little gems known as bee pollen. According to Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal, bee pollen is a highly nutritious substance. It is a complete protein, contains all 22 amino acids, has higher concentrations of the 8 amino acids that are essential to human health, has high levels of 27 minerals, enzymes & coenzymes, vitamins B1, B2, and B6, niacin, panthenic acid, folic acid, vitamins A, C, & E. Bee pollen can be sprinkled on yogurts, cereals, or salads. Rosemary recommends it as one of the top “super foods” but also cautions us to use it in small amounts with respect, as it takes 4.8 billion grains of bee pollen to equal just one teaspoon. “Herb balls” are an ingenious creation developed by Rosemary that utilize three main by-products of bees: honey, bee pollen, and royal jelly. (Royal jelly basically baby bee food with many nutritional attributes similar to bee pollen). I learned how to make these delicious treats when I apprenticed with her in Vermont. She uses a base of nut butters (almond or cashew) and sesame paste mixed with honey and then adds super foods such as bee pollen and royal jelly, perhaps a few chocolate chips and a little coconut, and then whatever herbal powders you want, including kola nut powder for a chocolaty taste. Her “zoom balls” contain guarana for that extra rush, her throat coat balls contain soothing herbs for sore throats, there are herbal balls with gingko for aging, even aphrodisiac herb balls. Use your imagination and the possibilities are endless! They are truly so delicious that it is hard to believe they are medicine and not dessert.
Warning: Honey is a natural, healthy food that most bacteria cannot grow in. However, it can carry a mild form of botulism and therefore should not be given to babies under the age of one year old because their immune systems are not yet fully developed and they may not be able to fight off this bacteria. Bee Pollen and Royal Jelly can sometimes cause allergy and asthma symptoms. Use with caution in small amounts until you know how your body will react.
“Then he fluttered in and out among the flowers, dipping into every dewy chalice and feasting on his fragrant honey.” Celia Thaxter
Basic Crepe Recipe
½ cup flour
1 tsp. sugar
¼ tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
¾ cup milk
1 T vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract (or you may substitute almond, orange, lemon, or rum extract for vanilla)
1. Into a medium size mixing bowl combine flour, sugar, and salt. 2. In a separate bowl, combine beaten eggs, milk, oil, and vanilla. Gradually add egg mixture to dry ingredients, stirring constantly with a wire whisk or fork until batter is smooth. 3. Pour onto a griddle and cook like a pancake. Put on plate and spread your choice of jams and jellies, pudding, or pie filling on top, roll crepes and dust with powdered sugar.Yield: 10 six inch crepes