02 February 2012

Candles, Groundhogs, and Other Denizens of This Date

There are many names for February 2!

Americans know it as "Groundhog Day" for the odd custom of using the "groundhog" (a.k.a. the woodchuck) to predict the coming of spring. According to the tale, if the groundhog sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter; however, if it is cloudy and there is no shadow, spring is in the offing.

This custom dates back to European folklore, and initally involved a badger. However, the rhyme which goes with the tale is even older. There are several versions, but they all boil down to:

‘If Candlemas day be sunny and bright,
winter will have another flight;
if Candlemas day be cloudy with rain;
winter is gone and won't come again."

The "Candlemas" of the rhyme is the day within the Liturgical Year in which all candles are blessed for the year. The Feast Day being celebrated is the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple or the Purification of the Virgin. It was the custom in those days to present male children at the Temple 40 days after their birth. Since the Liturgical Calendar gives the birthdate of Jesus as December 25, then the date for this event would be February 2.

There are no set customs for Candlemas; however this blog talks about a charming Candlemas tea, and of course, according to the old Robert Herrick verse, all Christmas decorations must be down by this date.

by Robert Herrick

DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
     Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
     The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
     Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
     Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
     Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
     Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
     And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
     To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
     With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
     To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

If the idea of having Christmas decorations up until February horrifies you, do remember that Christmas decorating was simply sprays of holly, rosemary, and bay leaves around the room, perhaps brightened with a bit of ribbon. In those colder days in homes with no central heat, these evergreens would last pretty well until February 2!

Not to mention that Herrick gives a good list of what would be called today "natural home decorations" through Whitsuntide (Pentecost).

In pre-Christian and non-Christian societies, the holiday was celebrated as Imbolc or Brigid's Day.

Here's the February 2 listing from Chambers' 19th century classic The Book of Days (this whole, fascinating book can be found on Google Books, and has its own website www.bookofdays.com).

And just a few more notes on Groundhog Day via StormFax.

1 comment:

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