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Groundhog Day is February 2nd.

This holiday isn't just about shadows and winter weather predictions, as most of us believe. This observance, also known as Candlemas goes way back in history to biblical times.

The Law of Moses stated that parents were obligated to bring their first born son to the church and make an offering to God on his behalf. This took place (usually) after the baby was 40 days old. This is based on the biblical teaching that Mary also presented Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem following his 40-day period of purification after he was born.  So, Jesus was born on December 25, add 40 days and you get February 2nd!

When Jesus was presented, an old, devout Jew named Simon,  held the baby in his arms and said that He would be, "A light to lighten the Gentiles." (Luke 2:32)  This is how February 2nd became known as Candlemas (or Candelaria); and, since the 11th Century with the blessing of candles.

It is also called the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, in the Eastern church. But, it's called the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Western church.  No matter what it's called, the celebrations both have the same format and are significant for the blessing of candles and candlelight processions.

There are those, however, who feel that forming a procession with candles really originates back to the Romans  who had a custom of going around the city in February with a candle procession. (see more below) So the candle procession  wasn't created by Christians at all.  But when the Christians attempted to christianize the Romans, they borrowed this custom of using candles in religious services.  So, in 494 C.E. Pope Gelasious I created the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.  Ironically, it was also used to kindle a "brand" left over from the Yule log at Christmas.

As I mentioned above, the Romans had a tradition known as Lupercalia, which took place on February 15 to honor the corn goddess Ceres and her daughter Proserpine (who was carried to the underworld by Pluto). This observance called for a torchlight parade, to represent Ceres' attempt to search for her daughter all over Sicily. Torches were lighted from the flames of Mount Aetna at night so she could continue searching. So, this is where some scholars feel the candlelight processions of Candlemas originate from.

Traditionally, candles and lamps are a symbol of rejoicing.  Candlemas in the Middle Ages was the day in which the church blessed candles for the entire year.  (Remember, there was no electricity.  Candles were necessary for lighting your home in the dark of winter.)  During this blessing, a procession of worshippers would hold candles in their hands. It was believed that wherever these candles were then used, they would chase away the devil. The unused candle stubs were saved because they were believed to be good luck charms.

Today, in many Roman Catholic countries, the candles that are blessed on Candlemas are believed to have special powers, often being lighted during storms, illness, christenings, funerals etc.  In Sicily they are brought out when there is an earthquake or when someone is dying.

The candles that are "purified" or blessed on February 2 by the church are also used to bless people's throats on St. Blaise's Day (February 3) to protect them from colds and getting fish bones stuck in their throats.

So what does all this blessing of candles have to do with groundhogs and shadows you ask?

There was a medieval superstition that all hibernating animals (not just the groundhog) came out of their caves and dens on Candlemas to check on the weather.  If they could see their shadow, it meant that winter would go on for another 6 weeks (and they could go back to sleep.)  A cloudy day meant that spring was just around the corner. 

In England, France and Canada, the farmers used to watch for the stirring of the "Candlemas Bear" as a sign that springtime was coming.  In Ireland, it was the hedgehog. In German it was the badger.  The return of hibernating animals meant nature was giving them a sign. A change in seasons was being announced!  And, anyone whose livelihood or survival depended depended on the changing of seasons paid very close attention to all signs.

The early German settlers, known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought this custom to the United States.  They chose the groundhog as their hibernating animal to watch as a sign of spring. Another name for the groundhog is woodchuck (Marmota monax). It's a member of the squirrel family.  Groundhogs that live in the wild eat succulent green plants, such as dandelion, clover, and grasses. Those that are pampered, like Punxsutanwney Phil, eat goodies like dog food and ice cream.  (More on him later!)

So why February 2?  No one really knows how that day got chosen as the one for weather predictions.

But, good weather meant a prolonged winter and a cloudy day meant an early spring.  The tradition rooted in America and gave rise to the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog in Pennsylvania believed to be a century old.

This is located in Pennsylvania.  Let's go back to 1793  when the Delaware Indians settled in this area.  The name Punxsutawney in Indian means "town of sandflies." The name woodchuck is also derived from the Indian name "Wojak" which was a groundhog and believed to be their ancestral grandfather.

There is a club in Punxsutawney where the members hike up to Phil's burrow  up on Gobbler's Knob, on February 2 and wait for him to emerge. Phil lives in a heated burrow underneath a simulated tree stump in a stage area.   Phil's a chubby little groundhog, averaging 15 lbs.  Why did they name the groundhog Phil?  I don't know. (If anyone does, please write me.)

Some of you may wonder what Phil does when it's not February 2. He gets around! Of course he always supports his area sports teams. But, he's  also made an appearance on the Oprah Show (1995); met President Ronald Reagan (1986); and, even gone a bit political  by wearing a yellow ribbon in support of the American hostages in Iran (1981).  Phil went high-tech when in  1996 he got his first website and in 1998 his forecast was sent live over the internet.

Phil is loved so much, that after September 11, 2001, troops were assigned to guard him on February 2, 2002.

So is Phil very accurate? Professional weather researchers have determined that the groundhog has been correct only 28% of the time.  How has Phil's predictions gone over the years? In 1887 he saw his first shadow according to the records.

Some of you may feel that February 2nd is a bit early to expect springtime signs; but, remember that BEFORE the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, Candlemas fell on February 14th.  So, (some) farmers in Mississippi and Arkansas observed Groundhog Day on the 14th because it was closer to the arrival of springtime. 

Information from BrownieLocks
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