Skeptics of Christianity often want to point out the supposedly pagan roots to Christian holidays. You’ll hear people say that Christmas is just a baptized Saturnalia, for instance. And Halloween—don’t get me started.
Even where these claims have a whiff of truth to them (which is rarely the case), they’re simply an instance of the Church following through on St. Paul’s admonition to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5). Christ is in the business of redeeming all things—even supposedly pagan holidays.
Be that as it may, there is an even more common phenomenon that is not so often commented upon. Rather than the secular roots of Christian holidays, I’m talking about the Christian roots of contemporary secular observances. Like Groundhog Day.
Yes, Groundhog Day.
In the Christian liturgical calendar this Sunday, February 2nd, is the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord (say that five times fast!). The feast day commemorates when, in keeping with the Law, Mary brought the baby Jesus to the temple 40 days after His birth—hence its date in the Church Year (Luke 2.22–32).
This feast goes back to at least 390 A.D., and it’s had several names since then. For instance, its earliest moniker among the Greek churches was simply “The Meeting,” referring to Jesus’ divine appointment with Simeon (Luke 2.29–32). The Armenians called it “The Coming of the Son of God to the Temple,” and the Syrians “The Feast of Simeon the Old Man.” In the Western Church of the Middle Ages, however, the feast came to be known as Candlemas.
In those days, a celebrated custom was the blessing of candles and the candle procession. The inspiration for this may well have been the words of the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s song, which come from the day’s Gospel: My eyes have seen Your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations—a light for the nations, and glory for Your people Israel (Luke 2.30–32).
The timing in the calendar, as people begin to itch for Spring and longer days, may also have a part in it—which brings us to the groundhog.
Candlemas & the Groundhog
Candlemas carried with it an interesting custom in Christian Europe. It was held that the weather on Candlemas would predict the future forecast. So an old English rhyme says,
If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.
The Germans took things a step further. They held that if a critter such as a hedgehog, fox, or even a bear saw its shadow on Candlemas and retreated home, that would be a sign of things to come. So a medieval German poem goes,
When the bear at Candlemas his shadow sees
For another six weeks back in his hole he flees.
When Germans first came to America and settled in Pennsylvania, they found a dearth of bears by which to predict the weather. What they did find in ample supply, though, were groundhogs. It being a sensible critter, they thought, the groundhog could take up the American mantle for this Candlemas tradition.
As it happens, the groundhog is so charismatic that he has stolen the show and the original Christian connections have been lost. This is, of course, oversimplifying the story, but it gives you the general drift and how we got from Candlemas to Groundhog Day.
Creation pays homage to the Lord
So should we baptize Punxsutawney Phil? Does Groundhog Day need redeeming? Perhaps not. We may simply want to say “good riddance” to the loss of such an inane, if charming, tradition from the Christian repertoire.
Let it be said, though, that such customs—however quaint they may be—help to form a Christian imagination. They further enable us to recognize our world as a sacred space that has been redeemed by Christ and is charged with meaning.
And so I am grateful for even the groundhog, which every February 2nd is compelled to emerge from his hole and pay homage to the Lord who on that day was revealed as the Light that purifies all creation.
Photo (c) bahadir-yeniceri/iStock