Feb 2, 2014

Of candles and rodents of unusual size

Today, February 2, is Candlemas, which you probably know as Groundhog Day. 
In the Catholic Church, Candelmas is also called the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (at the temple) as well as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The idea of purification may seem a little weird, but it has to do with the old custom of "churching women" who were considered to be impure for six weeks after giving birth. In the Catholic tradition, it was believed that Mary gave birth around the winter solstice, about six weeks before February 2.
Candelmas is also the day of blessing of the candles that are to be used during the liturgical year. Incidentally, these newly blessed candles are used on the following day (Feast of St. Blaise) to bless the throats of parishioners to keep them from colds, flu, sore throats and the like.  

 "The presentation of Jesus in the Temple," James Tissot

So what does this have to do with groundhogs?
Candlemas happens to fall on the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In fact, the Celts celebrated the beginning of spring at this time at a festival called Imbolc at which they would try to divine the weather. 
In 16th century Germany, Candlemas became the day on which farmers tried to get a feel for how the upcoming growing season might be.
They would look for animals that hibernated (in this case, hedgehogs) to see if they were up and about. If these animals “saw” a shadow on February 2, then it was said that the winter would continue, while cloudy skies indicated an early spring. Indeed, this tradition existed in other parts of Europe, as evidenced in the traditional English poem:

If Candlemas be fair and bright/Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain/Winter will not come again.

Today, this tradition continues in North America as Groundhog Day, with two famous prognosticating rodents being Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania and Wiarton Willie of Wiarton, Ontario.

And according to Reuters, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow this morning, so it looks like a few more weeks await us. We may need those candles after all. 

Indeed, the news even reached the US White House, with President Barack Obama tweeting a reminder to Americans to sign up for health care coverage: #Punxsutawney Phil says there's more winter ahead - make sure you get covered.