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Religion & Groundhog's Day: Christian & Pagan Origins of a Secular Holiday

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What is Groundhog’s Day?:


Most residents of North America are familiar with Groundhog’s Day, celebrated every year on February 2. What people may not be so familiar with is the fact that there are important religious origins that lie behind that celebration, even if those origins are no longer recognizable. Today, Groundhog’s Day is treated as a purely secular, if perhaps a bit superstitious, holiday — but that was not always the case.

February 2nd in Ancient Rome:


The name February comes from the Latin februare, which means “to purify.” For the Romans, February was a time of cleansing and purification. They prepared themselves for various activities that were coming in the Spring, making a fresh start. On February 15, Romans celebrated Luperaclia, honoring Faunus, god of fertility. Priests of Faunus took thongs called Februa to lash girls with, an act which was supposed to ensure fertility.

February 2nd in Nature Religions:


In nature religions, February 2 is a cross-quarter or four-quarter day. These days stand at a mid-point between solstices and equinoxes; in the case of Groundhog’s Day, it’s the mid-point between winter solstice and spring equinox. This day was named Imbolc or Imbolog. The word Imbolc may come from a term for “sheep’s milk,” a reference to the first milking of the ewes in the spring. An even earlier Indo-European word that may be related is one that refers to the process of purification.

Why are Cross-Quarter Days Special?:


The other three cross-quarter days are: Samhain, Beltane, and Lughnasa. These days are special because divination is easier — the “veil” between this world and the next is thinner than on other days, allowing information and understanding to pass from the other plane to our own. Divination meant observing nature and focused on the most immediate needs of the community — which, in northern regions, involved the weather. Winters were tough and people wanted to know how soon spring would arrive.

Biblical & Jewish Origins of Groundhog’s Day:


According to Hebrew tradition, the last stage of the birthing process occurs 40 days after birth, when the mother goes to the Temple to make an offering and be purified. In Jesus’ and Mary’s case, this event is described in Luke 2:22: “And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord...” Forty days after Christmas, the traditional date for Jesus’ birth, was fixed at February 2.

Candlemas, A Christian Festival:


The Christian Church appropriated the celebrations of Imbolc just as it did with so many of the other pagan holidays in ancient Europe. Christians renamed this day Candlemas, partially because of the tradition of lighting candles and perhaps also to retain the fire imagery: a common aspect of pagan celebrations was a large fire for the purpose of purification and cleansing. Among Catholics, Candlemas has become a day known as the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Christian Divination on Candlemas:


Christians didn’t just translate pagan celebrations into Christian imagery, they also adopted the tradition of divination on this date. Christians believed, as did the pagans, that by observing events on this date they could more readily learn what the weather in the coming weeks would be. A popular English saying read:

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

Protestant Christianity & Candlemas:


The Protestant Reformation rejected many of the traditions which were important in Catholicism — in particular feasts and traditions associated with saints. Protestants dismissed the common superstitions involved with lighting candles in order to drive away demons or sanctify anything. Henry VIII personally approved of continuing the festival, but by the mid-18th century, Candlemas celebrations had almost entirely disappeared in all Protestant areas.

German Hedgehogs & American Groundhogs:


Watching groundhogs for weather prediction was brought to North America by German farmers who had a tradition of watching for hedgehogs on this date, following the familiar formula of determining that winter would last longer if the day is bright enough for hedgehogs to see their shadow, but winter would end soon if it were cloudy enough for hedgehogs to see no shadow at all. Hedgehogs were hard to find in the New World, but the Germans switched to the similar and far more plentiful groundhog.

Groundhog’s Day in Modern America:


According to current American tradition, if the groundhog sees his shadow (because of the sunny, clear weather), there will be six more weeks of winter. In the past the seeing of a shadow has been associated with other, similar ideas: the groundhog would hibernate for another four weeks, it would rain for the next seven Sundays, and so forth.

There are many traditions and sayings which preserve an association of animal behavior with the weather. These observations may not rise to the level of science, but they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, either. Whatever their actual validity, people continue to believe them, so it’s no surprise that Groundhog Day remains popular.

Groundhog Day is not, however, merely an attempt to use animals to predict the weather. It also plays an important role in the anticipation of spring and the shedding of winter. Groundhogs (also known as woodchucks) survive harsh winters in harsh areas nearly as fat and sassy as they were when they entered their burrows the previous year.

The appearance of the groundhog, regardless of whether his shadow appears too, represents some measure of hope for the coming spring. Commemorating shifts in the seasons, looking back on the past, and anticipation of the future are important functions of our holidays, especially those tied to the rhythms of nature, even when the connection is no longer obvious.

In North America, the beginning of Spring is celebrated at the Spring Equinox, not at the beginning of February as it was in Northern Europe. Nevertheless, February 2 marks a shift in the year that we commemorate with thoughts about how long winter will last and how soon warmer weather will reappear.

In the past it was a magical time for people, but today the only magic that is overtly acknowledged is in the supposed ability of the groundhog to forecast the weather based upon a few moments of observation. This is all that’s left of the ancient celebrations of the natural cycle.

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