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Volume 15, Issue 5 ~ February 1 - February 7, 2007

Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

The Tipping Point Between Winter and Spring

Celebrate the coming sun at your own risk

On February 2, in one of four cross-quarter days, earth is midway between winter solstice, December 21, and vernal equinox, March 21. Since winter solstice, the sun has gained an hour a day.

It’s no coincidence that Groundhog Day and this cross-quarter day are one and the same. People have long recognized the significance of the day in the course of the solar year.

In Latin, februare means “to purify.” Although dating back far beyond the Roman Empire and Christianity, February 2 also marks Candlemas, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. According to ancient law handed down from Moses, the mother of a “man-child” must wait 40 days “in the blood of her purification.” (That time was doubled with the birth of a girl-child.) So 40 days after Christ’s birth, Mary returned to temple to purify herself and to present Jesus to God.

More a relic of tradition now, this was also the day Priests blessed all the candles they would use in the coming year.

Yet the power of this cross-quarter day as a tipping point between winter and spring remains. According to a German saying hundreds of years old, When it storms and snows on Candlemas Day, spring is not far away; if it’s bright and clear, spring is not yet near. Another German saying explains the roots of our groundhog in the form a bear: When the bear sees his shadow at Candlemas, he will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks.

German immigrants brought the tradition to Pennsylvania in 1887, replacing the bear with the more common groundhog. A day of manhandling aside, Punxsutawney Phil has it easy today, slumbering thru winter in a heated burrow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

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