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Groundhogs and Candles and Midwinter Feasts
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Christmas OnlineTM

Groundhogs and Candles and Midwinter Feasts, from Family Christmas OnlineTM

    For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
    So far will the snow swirl until May.
    For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
    So far will the sun shine before May.

Those words refer to a legend associated with an old church festival that brought a little light into each home during the coldest part of the year, weeks after Christmas and New Years' had passed.

Don't get me wrong - I love Christmas. But most years, it seems like just about the time life slows down enough to spend a few precious hours enjoying our family and the holiday itself, it's time to take down the lights and pack away the decorations. And then we still have twelve long, cold weeks of winter.

After New Years' this year, I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if there was a mid-winter festival that was really in the middle of winter instead of at the 'front end'?

Roman Catholics celebrate the visit of the Magi on January 6, a date that many early Christians celebrated as Christmas, and some still do.January Dates? - January 6 is a feast day for Roman Catholics, and the date that Orthodox Catholics celebrate Christmas. But to me, that's still a little too early to count as a true mid-winter feast.

January sixteenth is the average "low point" of the average winter, as far as temperature is concerned. But, that's too close to Martin Luther King Day, which deserves celebration in its own right (more than it usually gets, really). So where do you look for inspiration for a true midwinter feast?

Click to read Luke 2:21-38 and see a bigger version of this painting.Does anyone remember Candlemas? - About the fourth century, Christians began commemorating the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple. By Jewish law, that would have been the fortieth day after His birth. (Luke 2:21-38). You may remember that a prophet named Simeon predicted that Jesus would bring "a light of revelation to the Gentiles." So the feast day became associated with candles. Each community's elder or priest would pray a blessing over candles, then pass them out for people to take into their homes. Eventually the celebration came to be called Candlemas.

At first, many Christians celebrated the feast on February 14 (40 days after January 6). When the Roman church fixed its Christmas celebration on December 25, they fixed Candlemas, by default, at February 2.

During the middle ages and renaissance, the feast took on other meanings. In parts of England, Candlemas became the day to take down your Christmas greenery and start spring cleaning. And, as the opening poem shows, many Europeans adopted a superstition that a sunny Candlemas foretold a late, cool spring.

This North American bruin doesn't apparently care whether she can see her shadow or not.February 2, a True Midwinter Feast - By coincidence or providence, February 2 is also the middle of winter as astronomers calculate it (the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox). Pre-Christian Celtic cultures celebrated this time of year by holding ceremonies to bless the spring planting. Germanic legend had it that badgers and bears came out of their caves on February 2nd to see if it was warm enough to stop hibernating. Many cultures celebrated the fact that by this time you could really tell that the days were getting longer, the ewes were carrying lambs, and the ice was thinning over the lakes and rivers.

Bears, badgers, candles, Celtic grain rituals, ancient prophecies, and the Virgin Mary - in other words, February 2nd has one of the richest traditional textures of any holiday we celebrate. And yet, we barely celebrate it today.* The only things most North Americans associate with February 2nd are Punxsutawney Phil and the movie Groundhog Day.

To me, those modern additions are like the stones I once found in my back yard - only a few corners showed above the soil, but a whole limestone foundation from a long-leveled building lay just under the sod. Before we disparage the modern remnants of the holiday, and maybe the whole holiday with it, it might be good to take a closer look at how Groundhog Day contributes to the richly woven tapestry of this season. Then, maybe we can decide what, if anything, February 2nd "means," or "should mean," or could mean, if we took the time to think about it.

Why Does the Groundhog Get Attention?

The Pennsylvania Dutch settlers brought along the notion that bears and badgers came out on Candlemas to check the weather. Somewhere along the line, those folks (or their ancestors) merged that notion with the superstition that a sunny Candlemas indicates a cool, late spring.

Also called the 'Maryland marmot,' the 'woodchuck,' and the 'whistle-pig,' the North American groundhog is more plentiful than the badger.  Safer, too, though Audubon's painted groundhogs look a little scarey.Of course, bears and badgers were becoming rare in most of Pennsylvania, just as plowed fields and fence-rows were contributing to an explosion in the groundhog population. So transferring the superstition to the groundhog wasn't a huge leap. Groundhogs are safer than bears and badgers, too, but I still wouldn't corner one in the wild. The famous prognosticating groundhogs like Punxsutawney Phil are raised in captivity.

Why Wouldn't the Groundhog See His Shadow?

If you can't see your shadow in February in Pennsylvania, it's probably because you're in a "low pressure system." Such weather patterns are moist and relatively warm. At any rate, if the groundhog doesn't see his shadow, you're probably not in the middle of a "cold snap." So there might be some truth to the "warmer, earlier spring" prognostication. Except that in northern states the weather can change radically in a few days, especially in February. So the groundhog's shadow (or lack thereof) is more like a barometer that shows what is, but not necessarily what is to come.

Groundhog Day Goes Hollywood

In 1993, Harold Ramis (the third Ghostbuster) created a film that many people watch every year as a reminder that people can change for the better.

Bill Murray plays "Phil," an obnoxious big-city weatherman sent with his attractive, but distant producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog's Day.

While the movie reinvigorated interest in Groundhog Day, it did NOT revive interest in pre-LED 'digital' clock radios, or in Sonny and Cher's early work.The plot really starts when Phil wakes up the next day to discover that it is Groundhog Day all over again. Incredulously, he relives most of the same events he went through the day before, then falls into bed exhausted and confused.

The next day is Groundhog Day again. And so is the next day. Phil catches on and begins acting out his frustrations and using people, knowing he'll have no consequences. Phil the weatherman eventually meets up with Phil the groundhog. Unfortunately the driving lessons don't turn out well.But, eventually, boredom and Phil's failure to make any headway with Rita convince him that "all is vanity."

Finally, two factors change Phil's attitudes toward life, toward other people, and even toward his strange situation.

First, Phil learns compassion through an old vagrant who dies in the street late at night, moving Phil to try to save him from that fate.

But the deepest change comes as Phil falls into real love for Rita. Though Rita awakes every day disliking the Phil she knew yesterday, Phil realizes a little more every day just what Rita could mean to him. If only he deserved her, that is.

Phil has already pretended to change. But when Phil realizes he really needs to change, he does. He learns to play piano. He reads good books. He even starts becoming kind to other people. By the movie's end, compassion and love have motivated Phil to become the person that he should have been all along. Apparently, all he needed was a little encouragement and an infinite number of tries to get it right.

Too bad we don't get the same number of "redoes" in life. Or do we?

Couldn't every day be a bit of a "redo" if we wanted it to be?

So What Does Groundhog Day Mean to Me?

One theme of the movie is that if you just work on becoming a better person one day at a time, you eventually will become a better person. But does this theme of "incremental self-improvement" fit in with the traditional themes of the holiday?

Why not? All of February 2nd's other themes look forward, if you think about it. Candlemas ends the liturgical Christmas season and looks toward the Easter season. Emerging wildlife, fresh-plowed fields, pregnant livestock, and even spring cleaning celebrate spring's "rebirth." What's wrong with the idea of personal renewal as well?

Light One Candle

Instead of making a list of New Years' resolutions you can't keep, what about taking one part of your life that could stand improvement and working on that, a little bit every day for a year?

To use a metaphor that is appropriate for the feast day, you are lighting one candle at a time, and not trying to keep a whole candelabra going until you're ready for it. Next year you add another candle, and so on.

Maybe you could do one nice thing, unasked, for a family member, every day. Or learn one new word in French, or read one chapter of the New Testament, or do one physical exercise, or write one line of a poem, or send one note of encouragement to a friend, or say one kind word to one stranger.

No, this isn't a "stairway to Heaven." But it is a way to make life on earth a little better for those around you and for yourself, too, eventually.

You May Need Help for the Big Stuff

I do. In fact, it's only through the grace of God that I make any appearance at all of progress (and that's often a three-steps-forward two-steps-back process). But that doesn't let me off the hook of striving to become a wiser, kinder person. As Saint Peter wrote:

    . . . make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.

Another way of summing it up might be: If it's too hard to muster up compassion, start with kindness. If it's too hard to muster up kindness, start with courtesy, which you can control, if you've half a mind to.

And what other areas of your life could stand a little self-improvement? Could you learn a new skill, or share a skill with someone else? Would it hurt you to turn off the television and pick up a good book?

You may be wondering if the world will really be a better place if you hold the door open for strangers, help your wife with the dishes, replace some of your television time with some good reading, and learn to play the harmonica? But of course, you already know the answer.

And if nothing else, becoming a better, and a better-rounded person will give the people you love a fighting chance of loving you back.

Happy Candlemas!

Maybe you won't get to church this Candlemas and pick up any physical candles. Maybe you won't see any wildlife to speak of. Maybe you won't get around to spring cleaning for weeks yet. But know that in the barn, the field, and the forest, the cycle of life is renewing, and the next generation of young lambs, rabbits, badgers, and deer will soon arrive. In the garden, the snowdrops may already be in bloom, and the daffodil sprouts have already broken the soil to get a head start on spring.

Choose this year's candle carefully, prayerfully. And when the daffodils do explode into golden bloom, may they reflect and encourage the candle-light in your heart.

God grant you and your loved ones grace and a spirit of generosity and service this season.

Paul D. Race, Family Christmas Online

If you have any corrections, comments, or additions you would like to make about this article, please contact me and I will be glad to hear from you. God bless - Paul

* Actually several "New Age" groups plan activities for this day. Don't let your kids google "Candlemas" unless you have "safe search" on and are prepared to answer a lot of questions.

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