Hi everyone, and welcome to this installment of the Christian origins of nearly everything. We’re here today with the scoop on Groundhog Day.
Most Americans are familiar with this fun and festive event, which takes place every February 2, but you may not know it’s actually a longtime Christian holiday.
In fact, in many Christian traditions it’s the custom to consider it the end of the Christmas and/or Epiphany season, and historically it was considered bad luck to take down one’s Christmas tree before this day.
What we today call Groundhog Day is actually the ancient Christian Feast of the Presentation, also commonly known as Candlemas.
This holy day in Christian tradition celebrates or commemorates the Presentation of baby Jesus in the Jewish temple 33 days after his circumcision, which the Church also commemorated over past centuries on our New Years Day, which historically was known as the Feast of the Holy Name.
Feb. 2, 40 days after Christmas, was also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, since the Jewish custom involved purification of the baby’s mother, 33 days after his circumcision.
The presentation of Jesus in the temple is described in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, in which the elderly Simeon, who has been waiting hopefully to see the promised Messiah before he dies, recognizes Jesus as that Messiah.
Simeon proceeds to pray the famous ‘Song of Simeon:’ “Lord, You now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see; a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.”
The notion of Jesus as the light of the world, as He would later describe himself, of course is at the heart of the Feast of the Presentation, and also continues the theme often associated with the feast of Epiphany, which is that of Jesus opening up God’s covenant to the non-Jewish peoples of the world, and His light and love reaching far beyond the geographic borders of Israel.
Of course, the theme of light nicely coincides with the advancing of winter towards spring. It’s often the case with Christian feasts that the cycles of nature and the seasons connect with the theme of a given holy day, or at least become associated with it. Other examples include Lent and Easter, and the notion of springtime and rebirth…All Saints and All Souls Days in the autumn, when the year marching towards its end is considered alongside human death and the afterlife, and various feasts becoming associated with seasonal touchstones, like Michaelmas at the harvest time, or St. John’s feast at midsummer.
In the case of the Feast of the Presentation, the faithful traditionally brought their candles to the feast day Mass to be blessed, which was especially significant during the pre-electricity days when candles were an essential part of everyone’s lives and provided literal light for the world. Hence the common name for the feast: Candlemas.
The Feast of the Presentation is actually one of the oldest feasts celebrated in Christianity, with references to it in written homilies or sermons by Christians as early as bishop Methodius of Patrara, who died in 312 AD, among many others. In the 380s AD, records indicate that processions and celebrations of the feast were part of observing it with the highest of honor.
A common claim, often not actually supported by the historical evidence, of many moderns is that various Christian celebrations have clear Pagan roots in existing festivals. While this wouldn’t actually be an inherent problem – after all, what would be wrong with replacing a nonchristian holiday, building, etcetera, with a Christian one? – it’s often a myth intended to be a little bit dismissive of Christian celebrations.
In this case, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which also focuses on purification, has been claimed to be a precursor of the feast of the Presentation. One major problem with that theory, however, is that the historical record indicates the Feast of the Presentation began in the Christian EAST, where Lupercalia was not celebrated, rather than in the West.
Either way, Candlemas through the centuries has a number of popular traditions associated with its celebration throughout Europe, South America, and the Phillipenes, among other places.
In many parts of Europe, anyway, the holiday became associated with predicting the length of the remaining winter. One popular rhyme says, “If Candlemas Day be dry and fair, the half o’ winter’s to come and mair; if Candlemas Day be wet and foul, the half o’ winter’s gone at Yule.”
Across Europe, predicting winter’s length became associated with animals ranging from bears to hedgehogs and, in Germany, badgers. There, if the badger saw his shadow on Candlemas, which even came to be nicknamed “Badger Day” in Germany, weeks of prolonged winter could be expected.
German immigrants to America, particularly those who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought the tradition with them but shifted it to the much more locally common groundhog, or woodchuck. Groundhog Day there dates back at least to 1840 and has become a popular tradition across the US, as well as a popular 1990s movie starring Bill Murray.
Of course, Candlemas – the Feast of the Presentation – continues to be celebrated every February 2 as an ancient feast of the Church, as it has been for nearly 2,000 years – in Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and other churches across the world today.
And it continues to remind the faithful of Jesus as the light of the world, not only breaking through the dark winter to bring the promise of spring, but the darkness of evil to bring love and truth.