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
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
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
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
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
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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