Why has a groundhog anything to do with the end of winter?
For that matter, what do a bear, a snake or a marmot have to do with winter?
Feb. 2 is Candlemas Day, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple, marking 40 days after his birth at Christmas. Candles are blessed in churches and given to the faithful for home use on this day. Their light helps to drive out the last dark days of winter as it reminds us of Christ’s presence.
Feb. 2 is also Groundhog Day. This German tradition says that, if a groundhog comes out of its burrow and sees its shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of winter.
Of course, in Germany, where the tradition started, the animal that saw its shadow was actually a hedgehog. When Germans emigrated to the Pennsylvania area of the U.S. in the 18th century, they found more groundhogs there (also called woodchucks) than hedgehogs. And since hedgehogs or groundhogs aren’t too common in many places, other animals have stepped in: like the marmot in Alaska.
One of the German sayings for the season translates as “If Candlemas (Lichtmess) is mild and pure, winter will be long for sure (winter sein).
Tradition also says that Germans learned the badger tradition from the Romans. On the other hand, it could have come from Russia. In Slavic regions we find the Serbian tradition of Sretenje or “The Meeting of the Lord.” This Serbian Orthodox celebration marks the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2. Along with it comes the tradition that bears awake from their hibernation on that day and wander the woods (looking for the Lord?). If they see their shadow, they retreat to their dens for more weeks of winter.
In Ireland, Feb. 1 is the feast of St. Brigid (also known as Brigit). Another name for St. Brigid is “Mary of the Gaels” and some legends even call her the foster mother of Jesus.
St. Brigid of Kildare’s feast is celebrated on what was once a pagan feast called Imbolc. This Old Irish word translates as “in the belly” and referred to the lambing of ewes — a sign of spring.
On this day, people make St. Brigid crosses out of rushes, as well as dolls, called Brídeóg, also from rushes. To ensure good luck in the coming year, people would leave out food or bits of cloth or even clothes for the doll, hoping for a blessing from St. Brigid. In more modern times, children have carried the dolls from house to house collecting money for the poor.
As for weather, Irish and Scottish traditions say that, if badgers or snakes see their shadows on St. Brigid’s Day, there will be more winter. The British saying goes: “If Candlemas is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” (Or more than two, if you live in Wisconsin.)
Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 on the calendar fall exactly at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it’s naturally a time of meteorological transition. Whether or not any animal sees its shadow on that day, there are still six weeks until the equinox.
We also find ourselves roughly between the feast of Christmas — when Christ’s light entered the world — and Ash Wednesday, when we begin the journey to the joy of Easter. That means the shadows of sin are on our minds, but also the light of Christ that will drive those shadows away.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; fisheaters.com; history.com; wikipedia.com; internetmonk.com; and the University of Cincinnati at uc.edu.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in March 2014.