Baptizing the Groundhog
Skeptics of Christianity often want to point out supposedly pagan roots to Christian holidays—”Christmas is just a baptized Saturnalia,” for instance. What is not so often commented upon are the Christian roots of contemporary secular observances. Like Groundhog Day.
Yes, Groundhog Day.
In the Christian liturgical calendar, February 2nd is the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord. (Whew! That’s tiring even to type!) This feast goes back to at least 390 A.D. It’s had several names since then.
For instance, its earliest moniker among the Greek churches was simply ” The Meeting,” referring to Jesus’ divine appointment with Simeon (Luke 2.29-32). The Armenians called it “The Coming of the Son of God to the Temple,” and the Syrians “The Feast of Simeon the Old Man.” In the Western Church of the Middle Ages, however, the feast came to be known as Candlemas.
In those days, a celebrated custom was the blessing of candles and the candle procession. The inspiration for this may well have been the words of the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s song, which come from the day’s Gospel:
My eyes have seen Your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations—a light for the nations, and glory for Your people Israel. (Luke 2.30-32)
The timing in the calendar, as people begin to itch for Spring and longer days, also probably has a part in it.
Candlemas carried with it an interesting custom in Christian Europe. It was held that the weather on Candlemas would predict the future forecast. So an old English rhyme says,
If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.
The Germans took things a step further. They held that if a critter such as a hedgehog, fox, or even a bear saw its shadow on Candlemas and retreated home, that would be a sign of things to come. So a German poem goes,
When the bear at Candlemas his shadow sees
For another six weeks back in his hole he flees.
(Do bears live in holes? Just curious.)
When Germans first came to America and settled in Pennsylvania, they found a dearth of bears by which to predict the weather. What they did find in ample supply, though, were groundhogs. It being a sensible critter, they thought, the groundhog could take up the American mantle for this Candlemas tradition.
As it happens, the groundhog is so charismatic that he has stolen the show and the original Christian connections have been lost.
So should we baptize Punxsatawney Phil? Does Groundhog Day need redeeming? Perhaps not. We may simply want to say “good riddance” to the loss of such an inane, if charming, tradition from the Christian repertoire.
Let it be said, though, that such customs—however quaint they may be—help to form a Christian imagination. That is, they further enable us to recognize our world as a sacred space that has been redeemed by Christ and is charged with meaning.
Therefore, I am grateful for even the groundhog, which every February 2nd is compelled to emerge from his hole and pay homage to the Lord who on this day was revealed as the Light that purifies all creation.
For further reading:
Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, by Francis X. Weiser
“Redeeming Holy Days”