have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.
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
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
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
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
Copyright © 1999 Kim
Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.