Groundhog Day

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Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian), Folkloric
Date of Observation: February 2
Where Celebrated: United States and throughout the Christian world
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Groundhog


Candlemas is a Christian holiday marking forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

According to the law of Moses, it was the parents' duty to bring their firstborn son to the church and make an offering to God on his behalf. This usually took place on the fortieth day following the child's birth. After observing the traditional forty-day period of purification following the baby's birth, therefore, Mary presented Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. An aged and devout Jew named Simeon held the baby in his arms and announced that he would be a "light to lighten the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32). This is why February 2 (which is forty days after CHRISTMAS ) came to be called Candlemas (Candelaria in Spanish-speaking countries) and has been celebrated by the blessing of CANDLES since the eleventh century. In the Eastern church, it is known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, while in the Western church it is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But both festivals celebrate the same sequence of events and are characterized by the blessing of candles and candlelight processions.

Some think that the custom of forming a procession with lighted candles was not originally a Christian idea but was instead an attempt to create a Christian identity for an ancient Roman rite that took place in February and consisted of a procession around the city with lighted candles. Roman Christians borrowed the practice of using candles in religious services, and in 494 C . E . Pope Gelasius I established the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. The Feast of the Purification was also the time to kindle a "brand" left over from the Yule log at Christmas.



Some researchers believe the candles custom of Candlemas derived from customs from pagan celebrations held at the same time of year. On February 1 the pagan Celts celebrated IMBOLC, a festival associated with the return of the spring goddess Bride (later St. Bridget). In some areas sacred fires and candles burned through the night in honor of Bride's return. In ancient Rome, people observed purification rites throughout the month of February, which included a procession throught the city with lit candles. In addition, they celebrated the return of the spring goddess Ceres on February 1. Pagans in other Mediterranean cultures also welcomed the return of a spring deity. Many of these observances featured fire rituals and torchlit processions, which some scholars see as the origin of the candlelight processions now associated with Candlemas. In addition, lamps and candles are a traditional symbol of rejoicing. During the Middle Ages, Candlemas was the day on which the church blessed candles for the entire year. There was a procession of worshippers holding candles in their hands, and people believed that wherever these candles were used, they would chase away the devil. The unused candle stubs were often preserved as good-luck charms. In many Roman Catholic countries today, the candles blessed on Candlemas are still regarded as possessing special powers. In Brittany, France, for example, they are lit in times of storm or illness. In parts of Austria, they are lit at important family occasions such as christenings and funerals. In Sicily, the Candlemas candles are brought out when there is an earthquake or when someone is dying.

The candles that are "purified" or blessed in the church on February 2 are also used to bless people's throats on ST. BLAISE'S DAY (February 3), protecting them from colds and from fishbones getting stuck.


In the United States, February 2 is popularly known as Groundhog Day. There was a medieval superstition that all hibernating animals-not just groundhogs-came out of their caves and dens on Candlemas to check on the weather. If they could see their shadows, it meant that winter would go on for another six weeks and they could go back to sleep. A cloudy day meant that spring was just around the corner. Farmers in England, France, and Canada used to look for the stirring of the "Candlemas Bear" as a sign that spring was on its way; in Ireland, it was the hedgehog; and in Germany, it was the badger. The return of hibernating animals was one of several ways in which nature announced a change in the season, and those whose livelihood depended upon natural cycles were very attuned to such signs.

It was the early German settlers known as the Pennsylvania Dutch who brought this custom to the United States and chose the groundhog as their harbinger of spring. No one really knows why the weather on this day was believed to indicate the reverse of what was to come: Good weather meant prolonged winter, and cloudy weather meant an early spring. But the tradition took hold in America, giving rise to the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog in Pennsylvania believed to be nearly a century old. There is a club in Punxsutawney whose members still trek up to Phil's burrow on February 2 and wait for him to emerge. Unfortunately, weather researchers have determined that the groundhog has been correct only 28 percent of the time.

If February 2 seems a little early to look for signs of spring, remember that before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, Candlemas fell on February 14. Until recently, farmers in Mississippi and Arkansas observed Groundhog Day on the fourteenth because it was closer to the arrival of warm weather. Candlemas


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New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Groundhog Day

February 2
There was a medieval superstition that all hibernating animals—not just groundhogs—came out of their caves and dens on Candlemas to check on the weather. If they could see their shadows, it meant that winter would go on for another six weeks and they could go back to sleep. A cloudy day meant that spring was just around the corner. It was the early German settlers known as the Pennsylvania Dutch who attached this superstition to the groundhog. In Germany it was the badger, and in England, France, and Canada it was the bear who was believed to make similar predictions about the weather.
The most famous forecaster in the United States is Punxsutawney Phil, a legendary groundhog in north-central Pennsylvania believed to be nearly a century old. Members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, along with thousands of other people, trek up to Phil's burrow on Gobbler's Knob on February 2 and get the news directly from him. (They also capture the event on film, which is available for viewing from a link on their web site.) Unfortunately, weather researchers have determined that over the years the groundhog has been correct only 28 percent of the time.
Numerous events take place in Punxsutawney over the days surrounding February 2, including group hikes, parties, live entertainment, fireworks, a winter carnival, and the showing of Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray.
Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
c/o Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce
124 W. Mahoning St.
Punxsutawney, PA 15767
814-938-7700; fax: 814-938-4303
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 110
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 29
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 45
DictDays-1988, p. 51
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 67
OxYear-1999, p. 64
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.