January 30, 2010

Candlemas and the Groundhog

One of my favorite holidays, Groundhog Day, is coming up Tuesday. I'm really drawn to the idea of a marmot that predicts the weather, and it's a nice distraction in the middle of winter.

February 2 is roughly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and many holidays have been associated with it. The Catholic and Orthodox churches celebrate February 2 as the day Mary came out of seclusion and brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. It's officially called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, but it's popularly known as Candlemas because candles are brought to church for blessing. In many parts of Europe, Candlemas is considered a good day for determining how long winter will last. In the past, bears played the role on Candlemas in Europe that groundhogs now play in the U.S. (I think a groundhog is probably easier to manage...)

In the ancient Mediterranean Jewish women would remain secluded for 40 days after giving birth, so Candlemas comes 40 days after Christmas. If, as the Puritans pointed out, Christmas is based on several pagan holidays, might Candlemas be based on a pagan holiday as well? The ancient Roman's celebrated Lupercalia in mid-February, but I think it influenced Valentine's Day more than Candlemas. However, in Celtic parts of Europe February 2 was a festival for the goddess Brigid, and later a Catholic saint by the same name. Both the goddess and the saint are associated with fire. Maybe Brigid's fires became Candlemas candles?

Somehow, from this mid-winter mix of pagan and Christian elements, Groundhog Day emerged. It was probably first celebrated by German immigrants in Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century, but by the late 1800s Clifton Johnson recorded beliefs about a weather-predicting groundhog among farmers in western Massachusetts.

While Candlemas loomed larger in their minds than the groundhog, he did record weather lore like this -

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will take another flight;
If chance to fall a shower of rain,
Winter will not come again.

and this -

As far as the sun shines in on Candlemas Day,
So far the snow blows in before May Day.

If it's sunny on Candlemas, winter will stick around. If it's cloudy or rainy, spring will come. This is the same formula Punxsutawney Phil and other prognosticating groundhogs use to predict the duration of winter. (If it's sunny and he sees his shadow, winter is going to stick around.) When you're watching Phil on TV Tuesday morning, realize that he's the heir to a tradition going back thousands of years!

Note: These Candlemas sayings are pretty similar to the Christmas weather sayings I wrote about lat month. Since our cultural ancestors in New England were farmers, I can understand their concern about weather.

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