Every February 2nd we celebrate Groundhog Day. However, Europeans in earlier centuries and many of the American colonists during the 18th century celebrated the Candlemas holiday that same day.
So how are the two celebrations intertwined?
And just what is Imbalc?
I took this candle light photo inside the
1780 McGuffey Cabin.
In reading and researching this February 2nd date I have learned that long ago the celebration of Candlemas was a very religious occasion. In a book I have called Observations on Popular Antiquities, Chiefly Illustrating the Origins of our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions by Henry Ellis and John Brand (copywrite 1815), it explicitly shows us this in no uncertain terms.
Candlemas occurs at a period between the December solstice and the March equinox, marking the 40th day after Christmas; many people traditionally noted that time of the year as winter’s “halfway point” while waiting for the spring, and celebrated the annual triumph of light/spring over darkness/winter. It was the day when the blessing of the year’s supply of candles would take place, for candles blessed on this day were among the most powerful talismans (or religious "protectors") available to ordinary folk in the Middle Ages.
Here in America, the colonials did much the same as their European counterparts: they also lit candles and held them during parts of the church service, then brought them home. They believed the lit candles protected the home during storms, warded off evil, and comforted the sick.
The name Candlemas comes to us from England and refers to the custom of which is much of what we've been talking about - blessing and distributing candles in procession before the celebration of Holy Mass. And since many Christians consider Jesus as the “light of the world,” it is fitting that candles are blessed on this day and that a candle-lit procession precedes the religious service.
It should also be noted that Candlemas celebrates three occasions according to Christian belief: the presentation of the child Jesus; Jesus’ first entry into the temple; and it celebrates the Virgin Mary’s purification (mainly in Catholic churches but there are notations that all Christians celebrated).
It was by religious festivals such as Candlemas that villagers told the passing of time, especially in the Middle Ages. Events in the recent past or near future would be dated by their coincidence with - or proximity to - a particular saint's day or festival. Few in the Medieval period knew the exact year according to the Christian chronology, and even literate men & women living in the manor houses looked at the passing of time in terms of the monarch's reign. The hours of the day were calculated by the position of the sun or sundial on the church tower. In fact, not too long ago I read an excellent novel, The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer, about two time-traveling Englishmen - John & William - who were originally from the year 1348 but travel into the future at 99 year intervals, witnessing the changes made in each near century. And since we are speaking of marking time, I thought the following passage and exchange in the book was well-suited at this point, for it speaks of the ultimate man-made time-keeper: clocks. You see, mechanical clocks, as we know them to be, did not exist in John & William's starting point time. However, a major breakthrough occurred around 1360 when a device designed and built by Henry de Vick established basic clock design for the next 300 years. Of course, ideas and inventions took much longer to spread in those long ago days, and minor developments were added over the decades and centuries, such as the invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century, which allowed small clocks to be built for the first time, but the basics were there early on and remain to this day.
So, as the Outcasts of Time story continues on, at one point the two men find themselves in the year 1546 - 198 years past their own time - and in meeting a man named Tom, the following occurs (written in 1st person from John's perspective p. 134):
|St. Michael the Archangel's Church, Chagford|
The church bell in Chagford rings out nine times.
"Nine of the clock," remarks Tom.
"What is 'the clock'?" I ask.
He looks at me. "How can you not know what a clock is? It is a machine for telling the time. With weights and cogs and things like that. Surely you've heard one? They're proud of their clock in Chagford. All the folks there live by its chimes. But those from the town are constantly saying 'sorry, sorry' for their lateness - and why? Because their clock tells them so. If they didn't have a clock, they would never be late. No one would know."
I am still mystified. How do you get a machine to tell the hour? Time is reckoned by the motion of the sun around the Earth, which is down to the Will of God, so how do you make a machine that tells the Will of God?
You see, because the seasonal tasks were the same every year, and because only a major public or private event, such as a plague epidemic, a drought, or the death of a monarch or a family member, for example, would distinguish any one year from all the others, the perception in the passing of time meant little to most people, and only few were even aware of any differences in the physical conditions of their lives compared with those of their grandparents (even though such differences may have been minimal).
So Candlemas was one such religious festival or celebration to help the marking and passing of time.
February 2nd was also a holiday to honor a woman named Februa as well, "after which many people have opinion that the moneth February is called. The Romaines this night went about the city of Rome with torches and candles brenning (burning) in worship of this woman Februa, for hope to have the more helpe and succoure of her sonne Mars." (Mars being considered a God to which they prayed, and succourre meaning to have assistance and support in times of hardship and distress.)It was also on February 2nd that Pagans celebrated Imbalc, an ancient Celtic festival associated with the goddess Brigid, to mark the beginning of spring, and, as in ancient times, celebrants would light candles, make beds for Brigid to visit and bless their house, make offerings to her, and engage in weather divination.
Special feasts were had, holy wells were visited, and, as mentioned, it was a time for weather divination.
Although many of these customs died out by and before the 20th century, February 2nd is still observed by some Christians as a religious holiday and by some non-Christians as a cultural one. Many of these ancient customs have been revived in some places throughout the western world.
Celebrating another religious festival - Lammas Day
|1780 badger painting|
by Henri De Seve
Speaking of weather divination, by at least the seventeenth century a popular superstition had arisen that, if the sky was clear on Candlemas and the Sun was shining, there would be more winter to come. This was before any rodent was brilliant enough to predict when spring would arrive.
As for Groundhog Day: it was sometime around the eighteenth century that the idea arose in German-speaking lands that if a badger comes out of his hole on Candlemas and lies out in the sun, there would be four more weeks of winter, but, if the badger comes out of his hole and finds it is too cloudy to sunbathe, he will go back in his hole and winter will be over soon. A variant of this was brought over to the English colonies in America by the Pennsylvania Dutch soon after. It was here that the badger was replaced with a groundhog, the number of weeks winter would last was extended to six rather than four, and the determining factor of how long winter would last depended on whether or not the groundhog saw his shadow rather than if the badger decided to sunbathe. It was in 1887 when a newspaper editor in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, declared a random groundhog who later became known as “Punxsutawney Phil” as the United States’ official forecasting groundhog as part of an advertising scheme (that continues to this day).
According to the lore, there is only one Phil, and all other groundhogs are impostors. It is claimed that this one groundhog has lived to make weather predictions for spring's arrival since 1886, sustained by drinks of "groundhog punch" or "elixir of life" administered at the annual Groundhog Picnic in the fall.
The lifespan of a groundhog in the wild is roughly six years.
|Punxsutawney Phil is the name given to a groundhog residing in|
Young Township near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Every year that Groundhog Day falls on a weekend, up to 30,000 visitors descend on Punxsutawney, prompting a significant tourism boost for the small town of just 5,770 residents. When Groundhog Day falls on a weekday, 12,000-20,000 visitors attend.
So why the pictures of me hunting?
Coming back from the woods...empty handed.
Nope - not even a ground hog...
|Painting from 1874|
Groundhogs are not only edible, they're tender and delicious if properly cleaned and prepared. They live on a completely vegetarian diet, and carry no life threatening diseases for humans. Groundhogs are similar to rabbit in taste, and most recipes for groundhog have you prepare them in the same manner.
Meat on the table during these last six weeks of winter!
What is the difference between a groundhogs and a woodchuck? Absolutely none: there is no difference between a groundhog and a woodchuck whatsoever. In fact, the terms woodchuck and groundhog are interchangeable.
Groundhogs are likely called woodchucks due to the indigenous people’s name for this unique creature. The Algonquin people called groundhogs “wuchak”, and this name was likely adapted by the English settlers living in North America at the time and is probably the reason behind the groundhog vs woodchuck debate. Groundhogs do not chuck wood, as their alternative name suggests, nor do they spend their time eating wood.
Now you know more than you ever thought you would about Groundhog Day. I hope this adds to your knowledge of everyday history. Whichever you celebrate, it’s nice to know we are at the midway point between Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and winter will hopefully stay in the winter months and spring will hopefully come when it's supposed to in the spring months. Of course, the earth doesn't always follow the calendar!
Until next time, see you in time.
Celebrating another religious festival - Lammas Day
Information on groundhogs came from HERE
Some of the Candlemas information came from the book mentioned: Observations on Popular Antiquities
Groundhog Day information came from HERE and HERE, while a bit of the celebration information came from Wikipedia.
Time information came from TimeFrame: The Domestic World
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