walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 1, 2013
Happy Candlemas (or Brighid’s Day)

The origins of Groundhog’s Day.

About a month ago we had a little harmless historical fun with a very short history of how December 31 got to be New Year’s Eve. It turns out that what most people here in the United States think is an entirely secular celebration isn’t, at least not in its origins.  At the time I promised (warned?) that a post on Groundhog’s Day would be coming along in due course, and since I like to keep my promises, here it is.

Groundhog’s Day, February 2, as Americans and Canadians know but non-North Americans may not, is all about Punxsutawney Phil up there in western Pennsylvania predicting the weather for the next several weeks. No one takes this seriously as meteorological prognostication, although, truth be told, ol’ Phil out-predicts the folks on the television weather stations as often as not. And, of course, the terrific 1993 Harold Ramis movie, using Phil and his annual antics as a backdrop, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, has become a classic, forever altering the aura of the phrase Groundhog’s Day.

A lot of people profess to see deep spiritual meaning in that movie. I don’t know about that, but what’s interesting is that Groundhog’s Day did not start out as the tall-tale, pop-folk falderal it is today. It started out associated with, well, the spiritual. As with so many American folk traditions, Groundhog’s Day goes back to the Old Country, otherwise known for practical purposes as Europe, but really meaning most of the time Britain. But goes back to exactly what?

Well, February 2 is a significant date in the Christian calendar. It’s Candlemas Day, which is also known, with slight variations according to religious tradition, as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. But the Church calendar appears to be coincidental with or, more likely, an overlay on much, much older Celtic agricultural observances. It has to do with a very ancient, astronomically linked celebration called Imbolc, which later became Brighid’s Day and even later, after Christianization, Saint Brighid’s Day. There is a great deal of lore and legend associated with Imbolc, much of it involving Cailleach, the hag of Gaelic tradition. And yes, that lore and legend very much includes weather prognostication and careful observation of the emergence from hibernation of badgers and snakes. Imbolc is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and markings on ancient megaliths testify to its origins in astronomical observation. It was a time thought to be a harbinger of spring on account of the onset of ewe’s lactating in expectation of spring lambs, and the blossom-setting of certain plants, principally the blackthorn (itself associated with much lore).

Anyway, here is how the British Almanac of 1828, a copy of which I have open before me at page 10, describes the matter, and you will see right away the connection between Candlemas and Groundhog’s Day (as well as note the association of New Year’s Eve with the Festival of the Circumcision):

Our ancestors had a great many ridiculous notions about the possibility of prognosticating the future condition of the weather, from the state of the atmosphere on certain festival days. The Festival of the Circumcision (January 1) was thus supposed to afford evidence of the weather to be expected in the coming year. For St. Vincent’s Day (January 22) . . . . The Conversion of St. Paul (January 25) was . . . Candlemas day (February 2) supplied another of these irrational inferences from the weather of one day to that of a distant period:

If Candlemas day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight;
But if Candlemas day be clouds and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.

In other words, if Phil sees his shadow (“fair and bright”, as the old poem has it), we’re in for it; if not (“clouds and rain”), then not.

The much older Scottish Gaelic verse goes (in translation) like this:

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

As the British Almanac quote shows, many days we today in America rarely take heed of were once believed to be predictive of this and that. We have no secular American equivalent for St. Vincent’s Day, let alone the conversion of St. Paul. For some reason, however, Candlemas translated into Groundhog’s Day has stayed with us, except that most likely it is Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, that has stayed with us, carried to the New World by Scot and Irish immigrants. That is how we got from poetry at Candlemas in medieval Britain to television news reporters converging on Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to record Inner Circle guys in black top hats and tuxedoes talking earnestly to an allegedly 123-year old groundhog.

Next in the calendar series, maybe a story about Thanksgiving. That’s a long time from now, I know, but I promise it will be worth the wait.

show comments
  • Martin Berman-Gorvine

    You have to love the cultural self-confidence implied by a passage beginning, “Our ancestors had a great many ridiculous notions…”

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