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David Beaulieu

Woodchucks Light No Candles, or "What the Heck Is Candlemas?"

By January 26, 2014

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picture of small candle for candlemas

Candlemas Day is quickly approaching. Many of you are probably wondering, "What the heck is Candlemas Day?" Well, let's start with the fact that it occurs on February 2. That's right, the same day as Groundhog Day.

Did you ever wonder about the origin of Groundhog Day? Did you know that it always occurs on the same date? And why is the celebration always observed specifically on February 2?

Groundhog Day doesn't fit the mold of what a holiday should "look like." Like its fellow February festival, Valentine's Day, it's neither a patriotic nor a religious celebration; it doesn't mark any historical event, either. No, Groundhog Day is a bit of a crazy holiday, when you think about it. A rodent comes out of the ground, and somebody observes whether or not the creature sees his shadow. Based on that observation, a prediction is made as to whether or not we'll have an early spring.

But that's just the simple story line with which the modern world is familiar. As you may well imagine (even if you're not acquainted with the history behind Groundhog Day), the origins of the ritual are much more complex than that. Historians trace Groundhog Day back to Imbolc, St. Brigid's Day and Candlemas Day. Here are some resources you can consult if you wish to study up on any of those celebrations:

In its earliest incarnation, Groundhog Day was Imbolc, a pagan celebration associated with fertility and weather divination (thus all the business about predicting an early spring). When the pagan holidays were transformed into Catholic equivalents, two new holidays emerged from Imbolc: Saint Brigid's Day and Candlemas. Brigid was an Irish saint, but earlier she was a Celtic fertility divinity. A candle procession marked Candlemas (thus the name), which to the Spanish-speaking world is Día de la Candelaria.

Saint Brigid's Day was celebrated on February 1. Candlemas Day, was celebrated on February 2 (now Groundhog Day). At this point, you may be confused, since none of this has anything to do with groundhogs, right?

But as I argue in my article on Groundhog Day, you can throw all of the above out the window when it comes to arriving at the salient point behind the observance from the perspective of the winter weary. The names may change, the lens through which the majority sees it may switch from pagan to Christian to secular, but here's why February 2 is an important day, no matter how you slice it: the day marks the exact midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. As such, it is a milepost of heady psychological import for the winter weary on their arduous journey from winter to spring.

And that is why Groundhog Day is always on the same date: it's precisely the date that matters. On February 2 we straddle the great seasonal divide between winter's commencement and its merciful denouement. On one side of that divide is the winter weariness we've just endured in December and January; on the other is the promise of spring that beckons in spite of the blizzards and bluster that February and March hold in store for us.

So you see, Groundhog Day isn't really about a psychic woodchuck who's afraid of his own shadow. For those of us who yearn for the return of spring, the hoopla that surrounds Punxsutawney Phil is just an excuse to think positive thoughts. What we really care about on February 2 is that Old Man Winter, half the man he used to be, no longer seems invincible.

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Photo ©2014 David Beaulieu, Landscaping Guide (licensed to About, Inc.)

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