Happy Groundhog Day!

FEBRUARY 1-2 FALLS MIDWAY between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. We are now one quarter of the way between the longest night of the year and the shortest.

Many festivals are associated with these two days. February 2 is Groundhog Day, Candlemas, Imbolc/Imbolg, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, depending on your tradition. The Feast of St. Brigid is celebrated on February 1, especially in Ireland.

In Northern Europe these festivals were associated with the beginning of spring, as they coincide with the time when ewes can first be milked, seeds sown the previous fall begin to grow, and there are other signs of new life. In northern North America, this is High Winter, the time when we are likely to see our coldest weather.

Only uncertainty is abundant

This is a time to face uncertainty and the worry that goes with it. Earlier generations would have looked with concern at their remaining supplies of firewood and food: Is there enough to keep us going until winter is over and fresh food becomes available at last? The rest of the winter was likely to be unpleasant, with increasingly stale foodstuffs being parsimoniously doled out. A prolonged winter could mean starvation. One old saying reported from Vermont is that on Candlemas you should still have half your hay and half your wood. In some parts of Ireland, the Feast of St. Brigid is celebrated by leaving a sheaf of corn and an oat cake on the doorstep for fairies to eat. This is a sign of gratitude for the previous year’s good crops and a wish for the next year’s crops to do equally well.

No doubt many people checked their woodpiles and larders at this time and found them wanting, just as many people today are looking at their investments and wondering how they’ll make it through retirement.

Not surprisingly many traditions emphasize efforts to predict how long winter will last. An English saying is:

If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.

We also have the tradition of watching animals for signs of how much longer winter will hang on. The custom of observing one specific animal on one particular day probably arose in Germany, where hedgehogs were probably the animals of choice. (It may not be a coincidence that hedgehogs were at one time considered sacred to the Great Goddess.) Groundhogs were used once the tradition moved to North America.

A Time for Preparation

Some cultures cope with the uncertainty of this time by engaging in rituals of purification. The Ancient Romans named the month of February after their word februare, which means “to purify” (and seems to have found its way into the product name “Febreze”), and dedicated this month to cleansing and purification.

The association of February with purification lasted through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Often rituals were used to purify or cleanse the fields before they could be planted. Among the Celts, Imbolc may have been celebrated by a ritual procession around the farm, designed to create a protective boundary around the land. In the movie “Groundhog Day”, the character played by Bill Murray is forced to relive February 2 over and over again until he … well, you should watch the movie and see for yourself.

Contemporary versions of these ancient rituals of might be to mend clothes, repair broken objects, sharpen knives and other tools, paint a room, clean out a closet or your inbox, save money, write a will. You could open that statement and find out how much is left in your retirement account. You could watch “Groundhog Day” or visit the groundhogs at a local zoo. You could wonder how long the Recession will last. Ask the groundhog if he happens to know—he probably knows as much as the economists do.

This season is a particularly hopeful one for gardeners. This is when we get out the paper and pencils, the catalogs, the gardening books, the wish lists of plants, and start planning out gardens. It's also a good time to inspect your tools and do any maintenance or sharpening you neglected to do when you put them away (or, like me, threw them in a corner of the garden storage space) in the fall. On nicer days, take a walk around your property and look for signs that animals are becoming active once again. Think about pruning shrubs and trees while they are dormant. It's easier to see the architecture of a deciduous plant when it has no leaves. And don't forget to put out food for the birds (and fairies)!

A poem for Groundhog Day

By Lynn Ungar

Celebrate this unlikely oracle,
this ball of fat and fur,
whom we so mysteriously endow
with the power to predict spring.
Let's hear it for the improbable heroes who,
frightened at their own shadows, nonetheless unwittingly work miracles. …

For the rest of the poem with a photo and music, please visit the Panhala website.

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