The Historical Link Between Groundhog’s Day & Candlemas

Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
–and you yourself a sword will pierce–
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2: 27-32

Today we are right between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Apart from some football games being played later today, what does the date February 2nd bring to mind? Groundhog’s Day, or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord? (No guilting yourself if you took the non-church answer.) Actually, Groundhog Day and The Presentation of the Lord are related, we’ll get to that in a second. But today the church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a feast that quite honestly usually goes right by us unless it lands on a Sunday as it does this year. The presentation is 40 days after Christmas. It is also known as Candlemas Day because of the tradition of blessing candles, which we did at the start of our liturgy. Traditionally candles were blessed on this day.

In the old calendar, prior to Vatican II, The Presentation of the Lord was also the end of the Christmas season. That was changed over 50 years ago when the end of Christmas became The Baptism of the Lord, usually some time in January. But there remains an old superstition that tells us that our Christmas decor must all be put away by the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord otherwise we will be haunted. Now it doesn’t tell us who or what will be doing the haunting, but I’m thinking, given the time of year in which we find ourselves, at the very least it will be American Express and it’s a very worst it would be the IRS.

Today’s feast actually began in the Eastern Church in the sixth century and it was known as the Feast of the Encounter; The Encounter of Simeon and Anna with the Messiah, with Christ. To be very honest, Luke’s story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple is really the parallel story to Matthew’s account of the Epiphany. They’re really parallel celebrations, both are there to remind us, to teach us that Christ is the light of all people, of all Nations. We are told that in accord with the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord. And already, simply with those words, without the rest of the story, we have foreshadowing that points us toward Holy Week. For Jesus is the first born, the firstborn of the dead, the firstborn of the Resurrection. And Jesus is presented in the temple because by the end of Luke’s gospel, we will recognize that Jesus is the Temple in his own person. The Temple is not made of stone and mortar, but God’s Temple is flesh and blood.

But enough theology, where’s the groundhog.? Remembering that today is also Candlemas Day, for centuries Europeans developed all kinds of customs associated with this day, simply because of the significance of being halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. In an ancient English poem is going to sound familiar to us that we’d like this:

candlemas day hair and bright
winter will have another flight
but if it be dark with clouds and rain
winter in is gone and won’t come again

Throughout Europe this idea was connected to animals such as bears, badgers, hedgehogs and other such critters that are beginning to stir from their winter hibernation. The German immigrants coming to the United States who had looked to the hedgehog in their native country found the groundhog of Pennsylvania and simply transferred their allegiance. And as time went by, the connection with Candlemas and its customs began to fall by the wayside, and we were simply left just with Puxatony Phil. But for those of us who remember the words of Simeon and the presence of Anna in the temple, we will know that Groundhog Day is truly the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and the same light that shines on that beloved rodent is the same light that shines on all of us: Jesus Christ, The True Light of the World.