A Candle Against the Dark
These days, Groundhog Day each February 2 is a cute pseudo-holiday where we put our faith in a furry critter to deliver us six weeks early from the clutches of winter. Yet the history of this day dates back millennia and is seeped in worship, tradition and significance.
The earth’s clockwork-like orbit around the sun each year reaches four cardinal points: winter solstice, marking the shortest day of the year and the start of true winter; vernal equinox, when day and night are equal and the beginning of spring; summer solstice, the longest day of the year and the start of summer; autumnal equinox, when day and night are again equal and the commencement of fall.
Further dividing the solar year are four cross-quarter days between equinoxes and solstices. These cross-quarter days live on as Groundhog Day, May Day, Midsummer’s Day and Halloween.
Groundhog Day dates back thousands of years to the time of pagan tribes of western Europe and Britain, most notably the Celts and Druids. By this time of year, the worst of winter had passed, giving way to signs of spring’s coming: calves and lambs are born, birds begin building new nests and fresh, young grass sprouts. To these pagans, this was the doing of the goddess Brigid the light bringer, and they celebrated this holiday as Imbolg, Imbolc, Oimelc or Brighid.
By Christian teachings, this day marks Mary’s return to temple for the Jewish ritual of purification 40 days after childbirth. There, an old man recognized the Christchild, hailing him as the “messiah of Israel and a light to lighten the gentiles.”
Further playing on the motif of the return of light is the Catholic Church’s holiday Candlemas. In the cold, dark days of winter, medieval churches on this day were bathed in light, as worshippers carried lit candles to be blessed by the priest. Not only did the candles provide light, they were taken home to ward off storms and other evils.