Thursday, February 2, 2023

A Groundhog Day Look at Light and Shadow

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Happy Groundhog Day! 

I don't think most people go around wishing each other a Happy Groundhog Day, and I've never seen a greeting card for this day. It's not a statutory holiday or a religious day, and other than checking whether Punxsutawney Phil (or your local rodent celebrity) is predicting an early or late spring, there's nothing special to do to celebrate. Right? Where did this strange little tradition of Groundhog Day come from anyway?

Although Groundhog Day has been shown on calendars for as far back as I can remember, and has been a part of folklore for centuries, it's probably fair to say general recognition of the date increased greatly thanks to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. The movie drew attention to Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania, and the Groundhog Day ceremony there, but that wasn't an invention of the filmmakers. Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney is a real place, and Punxsutawney Phil has been the weather forecaster there since 1887. That's when a local newspaper gave the nickname Punxsutawney Groundhog Club to a group who had made a tradition of hunting groundhogs on February 2nd each year. February 2nd is Candlemas (more about that in a moment), and the tradition of watching for groundhogs or other hibernating animals on this date goes back centuries in Europe. Germans who came to American in the 1800s brought this tradition with them, and since groundhogs were common, that's the animal that earned the distinction.

Did you miss Punxsutawney Phil's prediction this morning? You can see it here: GoErie - Groundhog Day 2023

What's special about February 2nd?

The beginning of February is about the halfway mark between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In an agrarian culture, it's really helpful to know when to expect the weather to warm up enough to start planting, and having enough sunlight to clearly see a shadow is a reminder of brighter and warmer days to come. But a clear and cloudless sky during winter usually means it's cold because the clouds aren't insulating and holding the warmth near the earth. Thus the weather superstition. Some ancient cultures had a mid-season celebration around the beginning of February, and this was a time to start planting crops.

But why February 2nd, in particular? It is forty days after the date for Christmas, when Christians recognize the birth of Christ. According to the Mosaic Law, a woman was to offer a purification sacrifice forty days after giving birth, and the Gospel of Luke records that Mary and Joseph obeyed this law and brought the baby Jesus to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord. So February 2nd became recognized as the Feast of the Presentation. As Europe was becoming Christianized, it was a handy thing when pre-Christian religious festivals or cultural traditions (such as looking for animals coming out of hibernation as an indicator of the weather) could be replaced or marked by a Christian festival, and that's exactly what happened in this case. The Feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas, as it became known, was also the day to check whether the hedgehogs or badgers were coming out of their winter dens.

What is Candlemas?

The Feast of the Presentation is the feast day marking Mary's ritual purification and the dedication of Jesus at the temple. You can read about in the Bible, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. The feast day was recognized as far back as the fourth century. The name Candlemas (Candle Mass) came later on, from the ceremony of blessing the candles on this day. The candles to be used in the church were blessed, and the people were invited to bring their own candles to be blessed for use in prayer at home. A candlelight procession is part of this celebration.

In many Catholic and Christian communities today, Candlemas represents a day of "purification, renewal, and hope." And all those candles are a fitting reminder that Jesus is the light of the world and God's light given to all nations.

"For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelations to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel." ~Luke 2:30-32 

Moreover, it is a much-needed reminder during the remaining dark, long days of winter that, no matter how grave things may be, "the light sines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).  ~Carolyn Pirtle¹

We celebrate Christmas and Christ's coming with so much joy and lots of candles and twinkling lights, but a bit over a month later, when all those decorations have been put away and it's still cold winter, it's probably a good time to be reminded of the light!

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." ~John 8:12

Candlemas Traditions

I found that one country, Liechtenstein, recognizes Candlemas as a national holiday! Traditionally, all the candles in the house should be lit, and, by the way, the nativity scenes from Christmas shouldn't be put away until Candlemas.

In Germany, where the Groundhog Day association originated, Candlemas was also associated with payment deadlines, the end of the "servant's year", and the beginning of the "farmer's year". 

In France and Belgium, it may be called "Le Chandeleur" and it's traditional to eat crepes. Apparently this goes back to an early pope that ordered pancakes be distributed to pilgrims, and the shape and color are supposed to remind people of the sun. 

(Now, if it were up to me, I'd have pancakes for dinner. But I didn't think my husband would be excited about that, so instead we will try this recipe for Savory Crepes tonight.) 

In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, it's celebrated as Candelaria. One custom is that the person who found the bean inside the Kings Cake on Epiphany is supposed to bring food to the feast on Candelaria. The family meal features tamales, so often the person who found the bean is responsible to make the tamales. 

Did you check your local groundhog forecast today? Whether we see signs of spring or a longer winter today, take heart in the knowledge that Jesus is still the Light of the World, and that to be in HIS shadow is to be kept safe.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
~Psalm 91:1~

This post will be linked at Encouraging Hearts and Home.

¹ Pirtle, Carolyn. "What is Candlemas and how to observe it"; McGrath Institute for Church Life. University of Notre Dame. Jan. 30, 2019

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Heather{Our Life In a Click} said...

This is so interesting! We were just talking about GH Day and wondering why Feb 2?!

Joanne said...

I learned so much from this post!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I really didn't know much about Groundhog Day! Thank you!

PaulaShort said...

Kym, this is so interesting. I love all of the info you provided for us. I grew up waiting for Phil's predictions here in Western PA.
I'm so happy you shared all of this info with Sweet Tea & Friends this month dear friend.

Debra | Gma’sPhoto said...

Ever since the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, the day reminds me of the movie!! Thanks for sharing this information. Fun to know!
Take care and best wishes.

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