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Origin of Groundhog Day

Celtic Imbolc, Catholic St. Brigid's Day, Candlemas Day

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Having finished our assessment of pest-control options against groundhogs on Page 3, we can conclude with a look at the holiday, Groundhog Day, confident that our rodent friend won't over-run our gardens this year. Let me say right away that I have no illusions as to how the majority of folks feel about this celebration: they consider it inane. That fact in no way dissuades me, however, from attaching a certain significance to February 2.

Before explaining why, let's explore the origin of Groundhog Day by taking a look at Imbolc, Saint Brigid's Day and Candlemas Day.

 

Imbolc and Saint Brigid's Day

 

In its earliest incarnation, Groundhog Day was Imbolc, a pagan celebration associated with fertility and weather divination. The word, Imbolc is Gaelic, the language of the Celts. There is a strong association between Imbolc and Brigid, a Celtic fertility goddess. When the pagan holidays were transformed into Catholic equivalents, two new holidays emerged from Imbolc. One, Saint Brigid's Day (a.k.a. Saint Bridget's Day), was celebrated on February 1. Saint Brigid's Day honored an Irish saint, named after the Celtic goddess, who was a contemporary of Saint Patrick's.

 

Candlemas Day

 

The second holiday deriving from Imbolc was Candlemas Day and was celebrated on February 2 (Groundhog Day). Candlemas was the feast of Mary's purification and was marked by a candle procession. The ties between purification rituals and the month of February also hark back to the pagan era. Indeed, our very word, "February," which derives from Latin, unmistakably designates the month as a time for purification (februa means "expiatory offerings"). The Lupercalia, a pagan Roman purification ritual, took place in February.

But how did a groundhog become the symbol for a holiday that was marked by a candle procession? Well, the Romans, for instance, had celebrated a rough equivalent to our Groundhog Day in early February -- only a hedgehog was in charge of the weather divination, not a groundhog. And such beliefs survived the Christianization of Europe (going "underground," if you will), attaching themselves to Candlemas Day as folklore. European settlers in North America kept the pagan tradition alive, but substituted the native groundhog for the European hedgehog. Clearly, Imbolc and the older traditions have won out: today in North America, almost everyone in the general public has heard of "Groundhog Day," while mention of "Candlemas Day" would generally draw expressions of puzzlement!

Most people have now distanced themselves from fertility rites, purification rituals and weather divination (well, except for meteorologists, perhaps!). Nonetheless, on some level, don't we still intuitively associate fertility and purification with spring? Nor can we help but spend our winters speculating on spring's arrival. If hope had a scent, it would be the smell in the air on a warm February day. On Page 5 we move from its origins in Imbolc, St. Brigid's Day and Candlemas Day to the modern significance of Groundhog Day....

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