Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day...Or Something

Well, today is Groundhog Day, and according to the "official" animal, the omens are good that winter is done for, no matter how atrocious the weather may seem. Groundhog Day is a peculiar holiday; it seems so folksy and American, but its roots and antecedents go back a long way in European tradition and Church ritual.

February 2 was latterly called Candlemass Day, a day commemorating the ritual cleansing (according to Hebrew law) of Mary a week and forty days after giving birth to Jesus. This februation ("purification") took place in the Roman month of February, so named after the occurrence of the purification and fertility rite of Lupercalia, held on the 15th (close to our Valentine's Day). On Candlemass Day the gold and scarlet vestments the clergy wore during the Christmas season were changed back to normal robes, all greenery used to decorated church and house were removed and burned*, and special candles were blessed, lit, and distributed to commemorate and welcome the Light of the World. The ends of these candles were kept by the superstitious to light during times of fear, such as thunderstorms and malevolent spiritual manifestations.

So what does this all have to day with Groundhog Day? Well, from ancient times there have been weather traditions attached to this day, with or without animals. In Germany it is said that the shepherd would rather have a wolf enter his stable than the sun on Candlemass Day, for the sunny day betokens more winter, and that "the badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemass Day, and when he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees sun shining, he draws back into his hole." It is easy to imagine immigrants adapting this belief in America using the native groundhog as a substitute.

But little furry animals or no, the weather traditions are constant. It is expressed in this Latin distich quoted by Sir Thomas Brown in his book Vulgar Errors:

"Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,

Major erit glacies post festum quam fait ante."

And in this Scottish rhyme:

"If Candlemass Day be dry and fair,

The half o' winter's to come and mair;

If Candlemass Day be wet and foul,

The half o' winter's gave at Yule."

And in this English nursery rhyme:

"If Candlemass Day be fair and bright,

Winter will have another flight;

But if it be dark with clouds and rain,

Winter is gone, and will not come again."

So if you're shivering and suffering through one of the worst winter intervals we've had in a while, perhaps you can take comfort in this little bit of folk wisdom assuring us that the worst is (possibly) over, and that no season can last forever.

*As a bit of a side-note, February 2 is the last date you can tastefully and safely have Christmas decorations (especially greenery) up. For, as English poet Robert Herrick notes:

"That so the superstitious find

No one least branch left there behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected there, maids, trust to me,

So many goblins you shall see."


Brer said...

I love the idea of badgers predicting the weather; they seem so much more mythic than groundhogs--sound better, too. Which is why I included the badger pic.

And don't even get me started on the "Imbolc/Imbolg" imbroglio.

Brer said...

And also as translation of the Latin: "If Maries purifieng daiie,/Be cleare and bright with sunnie raie,/The frost and cold shalbe much more,/After the feast than was before."--1584 Reginald Scott, "The Discovery of Witchcraft."

John said...

I like the sound of "Badger's Day" better, too! Interesting stuff.