Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Festivals, shadows anticipate springtime

Groundhog coming out of hole with sun and shadow

Will the groundhog see his shadow this year? Photo courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Revelers nationwide turn to a woodlands forecaster at sunrise this morning, out of tradition that a groundhog who sees his shadow in sunlight will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter—and one who sees no shadow will emerge, signaling an early spring. Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, a seasonal Celtic festival—during which the spotting of a badger or similar animal supposedly indicated a turn in weather. Centuries later, the Christian holiday of Candlemas was regarded as predicting a forecast, and today, Christians observe Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple) on February 2.

A (GERMAN) GROUNDHOG HISTORY

Many regions have their own groundhog forecast today, but nowhere is the humble groundhog more revered than in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where “Punxsutawney Phil” inspires a whole list of events. When German immigrants made their way to Pennsylvania, U.S., in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought their groundhog traditions with them—and thus, Punxsutawney Phil was born.

A 2018 Phil-inspired drink:  This year, a Pennsylvania distillery is releasing a rye whiskey in honor of Groundhog Day, called “Phil’s Shadow.” But quantities are limited, so scurry—er, hurry—to the region if you’re hoping for a taste of the special drink.

Today, Groundhog Lodges in Pennsylvania hold social events on Feb. 2, where Pennsylvania German dialect is the only language allowed; those who speak English pay a penalty in nickels, dimes and quarters. Annually, Punxsutawney, Pa, draws tens of thousands of visitors on Groundhog Day—a custom that began in 1887, when a local newspaper editor declared the city’s groundhog the “one and only” predictor.

A Pakistani view of Punxsutawney Phil: In this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a native Pakistani reflects on how Phil reminds her of her roots.

Stack of pancakes on white with honey drizzled on top

French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes on Candlemas will bring good luck. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

CANDLEMAS, THE PRESENTATION AND CREPES

The Gospel of Luke is traditionally the center of Candlemas celebrations, in which it is described that Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.

Did you know? In Serbia—an Orthodox Christian country—Feb. 2 brings The Meeting of the Lord, when it’s believed that a bear who sees his shadow will retreat and bring 40 more days of winter. (Note: Keep in mind that Serbia follows the Julian calendar, where Feb. 2 falls on the Gregorian Feb. 15.)

The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

In European countries, Christ’s crèche is put away on Candlemas Eve (February 1), and across the church, attention shifts to the approaching Passion.

IMBOLC AND ST. BRIGHID

The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings. On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere mark Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, as the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. Snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to “test the weather” (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.) In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival, in honor of Brighid.

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