Are you a Pagan, a Christian, or just a fun-loving American?
For Pagans, February 2 marks Imbolc, a midwinter festival halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Or, if you’re Christian, February 2 is celebrated as Candelmas, the feast of purification of the Virgin. By Jewish law, it took forty days after a birth for a woman to be cleansed following the birth of a son. February 2 marks forty days after the birth of Jesus.
Then again, Americans see February 2 as Groundhog Day: tradition has it that if the groundhog sees its shadow on this day, it will be frightened by it and will return to its burrow, indicating that there will be six more weeks of winter. If it doesn’t see its shadow, then spring is on the way.
How did the Pagan festival of Imbolc turn into Groundhog Day?
Imbolc (meaning ‘in the belly’ or ‘ewe’s milk’) was one of the centerpieces of the Celtic calendar. With winter stores of food getting low, the Celts performed Imbolc rituals to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later.
Imbolc was known as the festival of light, and celebrations focused on the lighting of fires. Fire was perhaps more important for this festival than others as it was also the holy day of Brigid, the Goddess of fire, healing and fertility. The lighting of fires celebrated the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.
When the Roman Catholic Church christianized Ireland, they couldn’t really call the Great Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead, making her Saint Brigit. They cleverly explained this by telling the Irish that Brigit was really an early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she performed there misled the common people into believing that she was a Goddess.
A few years ago, I took part in a beautiful Imbolc celebration: our group of ten filed into a dark room, with one small candle flame lighting our way. Once gathered in a circle, each of us lit our candle from that flame, one at a time, until everyone in the room was bathed in a beautiful glow. Together we offered hopes and prayers for a gentle spring, and a fruitful summer and harvest.
Just as the Roman Catholic church co-opted Brigit and made her a Catholic saint, so they also took over Imbolc, renaming it ‘Candlemas,’ a time when candles are lit to remember the purification of the Virgin Mary.We won’t go into the misogynistic reasons why Mary had to be purified, but this became a time when the Church’s candles for the year were blessed.
Thus did the Christian church take an already-existing Pagan festival of light and turn it into a Christian tradition.
Emulating the Imbolc tradition precisely, the Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was met by Anna and Simeon, who held the baby Jesus and called him a Light to the World.
Which leads us to Groundhog Day.
A traditional British saying predicts:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.
Thus was February 2 established as the day to predict the coming of spring. Add to this the belief that thousands of years ago, people in the area of Europe now known as Germany believed that the badger had the power to predict the coming of spring. They watched the badger to know when to plant their crops.
When the first German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they brought their tradition with them. However, with a dearth of badgers in Pennsylvania, the groundhog has taken over.
So you can choose which holiday you want to honor on February 2, or you can check out the ancient Romans, Greeks, Chinese, and many Native Americans who all have similar holidays. It’s an interfaith day of celebration!
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