History of Groundhog Day

HISTORY OF GROUNDHOG DAY

Groundhog Day comes from Candlemas Day, observed for centuries in parts of Europe on February 2 where the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. This seems to have derived from the pagan celebration of Imbolc — the Feast of the goddess Bridget, or in Christian Ireland St. Bridget’s Day and alternatively “The Purification of the Virgin” commemorating the time when St. Mary presented Jesus at the Temple at Jerusalem. It comes at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The Roman Legions, it is said, originally brought the tradition to the Germans.

In more modern times, says the old Scottish couplet:

If Candlemas Day is bright and clear

There’ll be two winters in the year

By the 1840s the following idea caught on in the U.S., particularly in Pennsylvania whose earliest settlers were German immigrants. If the groundhog sees its shadow on a “bright and clear” day, six more weeks of winter are ahead.

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is the headquarters of the celebration where the groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil” regards his shadow at Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded knoll just outside the town.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

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2 comments… add one

  • Nice! Today we celebrated liturgy for the feast of the presentation, and as is traditional, our presbyter blessed candles for all, and then read the sermon of St. Sophronius from the 7th Century:

    “Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

    The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

    The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows;the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

    The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.

    Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.

    By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.”

    A particular piece from the canon of classical music for this day, which is stunningly beautiful, bright and consoling is Bach’s “Ich Habe Genug” which is described on the wikipedia page:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ich_habe_genug

    By tradition, Simeon was one of the “70” translators of the accordingly named “Septuagint” translation of the old testament from Hebrew into Greek. He was translating the passage in Isaiah “A virgin shall be with child”, and musing over the fact that the word in Hebrew could either mean virgin or young woman, he almost chose the latter word which appealed to his earthly reason. But an angel appeared to him and stopped him, and told him that “virgin” was indeed the correct translation, and further told him that he would not see death, until the prophecy had been fulfilled.
    Thus it was that he was waiting in the temple when the 40 days of purification were completed.

    Reply
    • John,

      As always, your comments are insightful and add depth. You’ve taken what most consider to be a secular holiday, and filled in the gaps on its religious background.

      The legend of St. Simeon at the Temple is a dramatic one. As the Septuagint was translated at least two and a half centuries before Christ, tradition says that he died at the age of 360.

      More interesting, as you say, the Hebrew word is ambiguous in the Old Testament. But the New Testament account in the Gospel of Matthew — written originally in Greek after the time of Simeon — repeats that verse from Isaiah and uses the word παρθένος, or parthénos, which unambiguously means “virgin.”

      Reply

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