Groundhog Day or Candlemas Day?


It is early February and time for a furry rodent to stick his head out of the ground and tell us how much longer winter will last. It is also “Candlemas Day” and the two are related. Yes, Groundhog Day has its roots in the Bible.

The Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:22-40) describes the custom of the time, in obedience to the Law of Moses, that 40 days after birth, the firstborn son and his Mother are presented at the temple, the son for redemption and the Mother for purification. Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth (December 25th – February 2nd). This celebration is called ‘The Presentation of the Lord.’

When they entered the temple in Jerusalem, it was the first time Jesus had come to God’s house. In the temple were Simeon and Anna, two elderly prophets dedicated to prayer and fasting. Their strong religious spirit enabled them to recognize their Messiah.

The day is also called Candlemas and there is the blessing of candles because of Simeon’s reference to the infant Jesus as the “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The candles represent the inner light of Christ, which He brought to share with the world. In 638 AD, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, proclaimed the importance of the celebration in his sermon to the church, stating: “Our bright shining candles are a sign of divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of His eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.”

Additionally, it is the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Prior to this date we were closer to the Winter Solstice and moving away from the cold and darkness of winter. After this date we are closer to the Spring Equinox and moving towards the warmth and new growth of spring.

So how did Candlemas Day become Groundhog Day? It started with an old English farmer’s saying:

“If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”

The meaning being that we are only ready for new growth and Spring if the brightness of Candlemas Day and the light of the candles (light of Christ) radiates through the gloom and darkness of the day outshining the world’s light (our sun). Otherwise let darkness and winter remain.

German Folklore incorporated a hedgehog (felt to be a wise animal) into the picture and German settlers to America changed the hedgehog into the more commonly found groundhog. The first documented American reference to Groundhog Day can be found in a diary entry, dated February 4, 1841, of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, storekeeper James Morris:

“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

An article I read, many years ago, presented a different side to this date. It focused on the purification ritual and prayer aspect. The typical first reading of scripture for this mass is Malachi 3:1-4 which speaks of purifying and cleansing. I have been using this date as an annual reflection time on what I need to cleanse and purify. Many people use January 1st, the start of a new year, to make resolutions on starting new good habits and breaking old bad ones. This date, a month into the new year, can serve as a ‘checkpoint’ date to monitor the progress. Or we can look at Candlemas Day, conveniently coming after many of the big football games, as a starting date to cleanse ourselves from our overindulging during the Holidays as well as tailgate food. The day also falls close to the start of Lent where personal sacrifice is a significant aspect, and we can begin the Lenten journey earlier.

This day also reminds us that those who pray and offer penance, like Simeon and Anna, are open to the breath of the Holy Spirit. It is how we recognize the presence of the Lord.

Again, on February 2nd, I will spend time in prayer and personal reflection on what I should stop doing (bad habits, recurring sins), what I should start doing (less judging, more trusting of God’s plan), and what I should continue doing (serving others, blogging).  All of this to distil myself into a better Christian and person. Just maybe on the 10PM news, I will hear about the Groundhog’s prediction regarding winter.

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