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Shadow and Light: Celebrating Groundhog Day, er, Candlemas

February 2 marks the liturgical celebration of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. This event (which occurs in the Bible in Luke 2) is related by Jeremy Taylor in Antiquitates christianæ, or, The history of the life and death of the holy Jesus as also the lives acts and martyrdoms of his Apostles : in two parts. (1675):

"The Purification and Presentation," from Jeremy Taylor's 'Antiquitates christianæ,' 1675

But this holy Family, who had laid up their joys in the eyes and heart of God, longed till they might be permitted an address to the Temple, that there they might present the Holy Babe unto his Father; and indeed that he, who had no other, might be brought to his own house. …and therefore when the days of the Purification were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…And they did with him according to the Law of Moses, offer∣ing a pair of Turtle-doves for his redemption.

But there was no publick act about this Holy Child but it was attended by some∣thing miraculous and extraordinary…for old Simeon came by the Spirit into the Temple, and when the Parents brought in the Child Jesus, then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and prophesied, and spake glorious things of that Child, and things sad and glorious concerning his Mother…

But old Anna the Prophetess came also in, full of years and joy, and found the re∣ward of her long prayers and fasting in the Temple; the long-looked-for redemption of Israel was now in the Temple, and she saw with her eyes the Light of the World, the Heir of Heaven, the long-looked-forMessias, whom the Nations had desired and expected till their hearts were faint, and their eyes dim with looking farther and ap∣prehending greater distances. She also prophesied and gave thanks unto the Lord. But Joseph and his Mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

This feast is also known as Candlemas. In EEBO-TCP, several works describe how this holiday was adapted from Roman Custom to the Christian tradition:

THe old Pagan-Romanes, in the Calends of Februarie honoured Februa the mother of Mars, whom they suppo∣sed to be the God of battaile. The honour that they did exhibit was this: they went vp and downe the streetes, with candels and torches burning in their hands. In regard hereof, Pope Sergius inuented another like ethnicall superstition: to wit, that the christian Romaines should go in procession with bur∣ning candels in their hands, and that in the day of the purifica∣tion of the blessed virgin, the second of Februarie. By which feast and burning candels, the Pope giueth vs to vnderstand, that the virgin Mary was pure from sinne, and stood no need of purgation. Of which point I haue spoken sufficiently, in the chapter of mans iustification.

Thomas Bell, The suruey of popery vvherein the reader may cleerely behold, not onely the originall and daily incrementes of papistrie, with an euident confutation of the same; but also a succinct and profitable enarration of the state of Gods Church from Adam vntill Christs ascension, contained in the first and second part thereof: and throughout the third part poperie is turned vp-side downe. (1596)

Of course, North Americans today are more likely to recognize February 2 as Groundhog Day, when

Groundhogs belong to the marmot family. Here's another peek at our 18th-century marmot friend, last seen in our Michaelmas post

groundhogs are said to emerge from their burrows and look around. According to lore, if the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow, it stays out and winter is over. If the sun is shining and the groundhog does see its shadow, it is supposedly frightened and returns to its den–an indicator that there are six more weeks of winter to come.

Groundhog Day in its current form has roots in 19th-century Pennsylvania. But the idea that the weather on a certain day can forecast that of the weeks to come (typically the next 40 days or six weeks)  is an ancient one. Groundhog Day’s roots may reach back to the Irish holiday Imbolc, or the Feast of St. Brigid, also celebrated February 2. This date marks the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, and so serves as a turning point toward spring. Traditionally, this involves watching to see whether hibernating animals such as snakes and badgers emerge from their burrows, as described in this verse:

The Day of Bride, the birthday of Spring,
The serpent emerges from the knoll,
‘Three-years-olds’ is applied to heifers,
Garrons are taken to the fields.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Vol. I & II, p. 117 (1900)

February 2 is one of four “quarter-crosses” in the year (Halloween is another!). As we peel back layer upon layer of meaning–from North American secular to Catholic to Celtic to Roman–it’s clear that these moments of transition from one season to the next have captured people’s attention and imagination for centuries.

Here in Michigan, we’ll have our eyes on Punxsutawney Phil, eager to hear his report. Given the record-breaking mild temperatures we’ve seen so far this winter, his response may well be a colorful one, as imagined by Dan Cohen on Twitter.

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