Thursday, February 04, 2016

Why Groundhog Day?

Did the groundhog see his shadow in your neck of the woods? I've often wondered why a sunny day should forecast a longer winter. The notion seems backwards. It turns out there's a sort of rationale for the lore: Warmer air holds more moisture, conducive to clouds, so in winter a bright day is more likely to be colder than a cloudy day. (Hence my father's occasional remark, which baffled me as a kid, that it was too cold to snow.) Why do we rely for weather prediction on a large rodent? The habits of animals—badgers, bears, hedgehogs, woodchucks, etc.—used to be consulted for weather omens in many parts of Europe. German immigrants to North America brought this lore with them and attached it to a local creature in their new home, the groundhog. Some information about Groundhog Day on Fact Monster:

Groundhog Day

Why February 2? In pagan tradition, specifically Celtic, this date is Imbolc, a fertility-focused holiday heralding the earliest hints of spring:

Imbolc Traditions

This is the time when livestock begin to give milk and farmers start to prepare the earth for sowing. This website recommends spring cleaning in honor of Imbolc. It also describes the making of the Brideog, a straw effigy decorated with flowers, shells, etc., and dedicated to Brigit.

Associated with St. Brigid's day (February 1):

St. Brigid's Day

In pagan Ireland, Brigid (or Brigit) was a fire goddess. As St. Brigid, she is the "Irish aspect of divine femininity." Her feast day, according to the website, "celebrates the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring on February 1."

Early February was also when the ancient Romans celebrated fertility in the festival of Lupercalia.

All I can say about the "spring" associations of the date is that they must have originated in parts of Europe with much shorter winters than those in the upper half of the North American east coast! We could only dream of seeing "signs of spring on February 1" around here.

In the Christian liturgical year, February 2 commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple and the "purification" (after childbirth) of the Virgin Mary. The day is commonly called Candlemas because it was traditional for worshipers to bring their supply of candles to church to be blessed on that day. The "light" symbolism is appropriate to the celebration of this date as the halfway point between winter and spring. As an Anglican, I view the blending of pagan and Christian customs on seasonal holidays as a feature, not a bug. After all, the Supreme Deity is the Creator of nature.

In parts of England at one time it was considered bad luck to leave up your Christmas decorations after Candlemas. So when I don't dismantle the tree until after Epiphany (January 6), I'm not running late. I'm actually super early!

When the human species leaves Earth for other planets and star systems, I expect some of our holidays to voyage outward with us—for instance, Thanksgiving (all people enjoy feasts and understand gratitude) and Christmas (decorations and gifts have cross-cultural appeal). Groundhog Day probably won't come along, though, in my opinion. It's too closely tied to the seasonal cycles of one hemisphere of a single world.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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