I've been thinking about Candlemas. This is because the Mexican mother-in-law of a friend of mine made an epiphany cake, and I got the little plastic baby Jesus in my slice, and the forfeit is that I have to bake it in to my Candlemas cake. Ah yes, the Candlemas cake which I make every year (except not.)
Candlemas is of course the celebration of Mary taking Jesus to the Temple for her ritual cleansing after the impurifying act of childbirth. And it's when Simeon says the Nunc Dimittis, because now he's seen the Messiah he can die in peace. Oh, and Baby Jesus meets Baby John the Baptist. (Not that I'm buying into the narrative, but that's the story)
Anyway. So I was thinking about this ritual purifying of women after childbirth, 40 days after a son; 80 days after a daughter.
My immediate response was the knee jerk feminist "how dare They have decided that childbirth makes women impure?" but I've been thinking a bit more.
The period before the purifying was called the "gander" month, and the husband was responsible for everything domestic until the ritual purifying. It was a way of making sure women were able to rest and focus on bonding with the baby in the first 6 weeks.
They wouldn't be expected to go out in public - again, a way of ritualising the babymoon (and does anyone else get really distressed at seeing a tiny tiny baby still furled up but out in noisy surroundings?)
And then the practical things: postpartum bleeding takes about 6 weeks to stop, so it would be just about over when the purification ceremony would take place - and that post partum bleeding does take it out of you, and you don't want to be too far from home.
And 6 weeks is just about when milk supply calms down, so again, women stop being likely to spray milk all over everyone (I could hit people on the other side of the room if I wasn't careful in those first weeks). And they'll have got latch sorted.
There used to be the old adage about not having sex for 6 weeks after childbirth - is that still in operation? I can't remember - so it might also have been a way of getting men to leave their women alone for those first weeks.
And actually, there are still resonances. Statutory maternity leave in this country is 8 weeks. Even if you're only on the State maternity pay (200 pounds a week or something) you aren't allowed to go back to work until 8 weeks post partum, whether you want to or not. So there's an interesting secularisation of the same thing.
Yet again, it's one of those things which at first glance is patriarchal and despicable, but beneath the surface are subtle and woman-centred machinations.