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by Kim Harrington


     And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.

Ephesians 5:11

     Groundhog Day.  What could be more innocent?  A woodchuck sallies forth from his burrow on February second to check on his shadow. If he sees it, we'll have six more weeks of winter.  If he doesn't, then spring is just around the corner.  From the perspective of one born and raised in Minnesota (where it's been known to snow in May), even six weeks more of winter sounds pretty good!  A recent movie starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell featured the world's most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and the festivities held in that Pennsylvania town each year on this day. Just a bunch of good-natured fun.

     Of course, if you put any faith in Phil's prognostications, you'd be guilty of the grossest kind of superstition--don't step on any cracks on your way out today! But if you've ever looked into our traditional holidays, you probably already suspect that there is more to this day than a rodent looking for a shadow... and you're right, of course.

     At one time, it was Imbolg (sometimes spelled Imbolc), a very serious holy day, set aside for feasts and offerings honoring Brigid, a Celtic goddess. The Celts (or Gaels) were a wild, warrior race that once populated most of northern Europe, but were gradually, inexorably driven back to the British Isles, and finally to Ireland and Wales. They didn't go easily; they gave Julius Caesar a run for his money, and were the subject of his famous book, "The Gallic [Gaelic] Wars." And they even made an appearance in the Bible, as the Galtoi (notice the similarity to Gaels, Gauls and Celts) or Galatians, who were among the apostle Paul's first converts.

     The Celts, led by their order of scribes and priests, the Druids, held sacred feasts on eight separate occasions throughout the calendar year. The seasonal solstices were among them (the first days of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter), and there were four more, as well...

     Beltane (May 1st), held in honor of Bel, or the biblical Baal, the worship of whom was probably introduced to the British Isles by the Phoenicians. We call it May Day.

     Lughnasa (August 1st or 2nd), a feast day to the Celtic sun god, Lugh, once considered the chief of gods, but who fell out of favor since the Christianization of Ireland and is now only remembered vaguely in the person of the leprechaun. The Catholics re-christened his feast day Lammas Day.

     Samhain (pronounced Sowen) (November 1st), a feast to the god of the dead by the same name. Changed to All Saints' Day by the Roman church. The evening before All Saints' Day is now honored as Hallowed Eve' or Halloween.

     Imbolg (February 1st), the feast to Brigid, and the subject of this article.


     February first was supposed to be the time when the ewes came into milk and gave birth to the first lambs, a time when the days were beginning to grow warmer, and the sun stayed out a little longer. It made sense to honor Brigid on the same day--she was the fertility or mother-goddess, and protector of women in labor and childbirth.

     Brigid's day, Imbolg, was, like the other pagan holidays, adopted by the church and renamed Candlemas.  Somewhere along the way, the day changed from the first of February to the second, but much remained the same.  The tradition of honoring motherhood was carried over into the church's observation of the day--it commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary, and the presentation of Christ in the temple.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, numerous candles are lit, and special prayers are made to Mary and St. Brigid (an early convert of Patrick).

     The Protestant reformers didn't much care for the idea of prayers to female demi-goddesses (or any so-called saints, for that matter), so they did away with the holiday--there is no honoring of Candlemas in the Protestant tradition. The general populace, however, had been celebrating this day for hundreds of years, before and after the arrival of Christianity, and were not willing to let a perfectly good holiday fall into disuse. After all, it was still around the time of lambing, and the days did start to grow warmer, just as they always had, so February second continued to be a sort of secondary holiday, with no particular religious significance in the Protestant world.

     The Germans had a tradition that if a hedgehog saw its shadow on Candlemas day, there would be six more weeks of winter--otherwise it was almost over. When they emigrated to the United States there were no hedgehogs, but the native Americans had great respect for the groundhog, or wojac, (from whence we get "woodchuck"), which was considered a sort of ancestor god. So the Pennsylvania Deutch changed their traditions from a hedgehog to the woodchuck, or groundhog.

     In the early 1880s, a few residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania began to celebrate the legend of the groundhog as a weather prognosticator. The tradition caught on, and today February 2nd is firmly planted in the American mind as Groundhog Day.


Copyright 1999 Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.


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