Symmetry Synergy

Symmetry.  It’s pleasing to the eye.  And significant dates are often the basis for holidays.  Today is one of those extremely rare palindrome days.  As my wife pointed out to me 02-02-2020 is a configuration that hasn’t occurred since 01-01-1010, or over a millennium ago.  The next one will be after we’re all long gone, on 03-03-3030.  Not only that, but today is part of a holiday cluster.  It’s Groundhog Day.  Yesterday was Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day initiating spring.  Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.  Today is called Candlemas, by liturgical Christian tradition.  We are living through a truly unique day.  Every day, I suppose, is unique, but the spirits are afoot today.

I’ve written about Groundhog Day before.  With its prognosticating rodent, it tells us if spring is on the way or if it’s going to be delayed.  Imbolc falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  In Celtic cultures this was a cross-quarter day, a time of uncanniness.  Spirits cross between worlds on days such as this.  In days of yore, it was also the feast of the goddess Brigid.  Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion.  When missionaries to places like Scotland and Ireland couldn’t convince the locals to give up their deities, they made saints of them.  St. Brigid is a fabrication of a Celtic goddess, not an actual saint.  For similar reasons in the quarter-year counterpart to Imbolic, Samhain, the church moved All Saints Day to November 1 and All Souls to November 2.  The Celts continued using the trappings of their cross-quarter day and eventually gave us Halloween.  Imbolc never caught on in quite the same way.

The early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born.  Christmas was established on December 25 because of all of the solstice celebrations at that time of year.  All that pagan jubilation had to be subsumed under a more solemn occasion.  Building on that mythical date, New Year’s Day was January 1 because that’s when Jesus would have been circumcised, eight days later.  Thirty-three days after a male child’s circumcision, a woman was to make an offering for purification in the temple.  According to Luke, Mary did this, and 33 days after January 1, in keeping with our fictional date-keeping, is February 2.  A tradition grew that Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed that day (Jesus being the light of the world).  This blessing of candles was named Candlemas.  I first encountered it at Nashotah House, where it was still celebrated even as a sleepy woodchuck in Punxsutawney was rubbing his eyes.  Not exactly a palindrome, but there’s a remarkable symmetry to it, no?

Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.

Rising of the Sun

“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,” the old hymn goes, “and time shall be no more…” Before Trump’s election I always supposed this might have something to do with the useless ritual of setting our clocks ahead. Apart from the fact that we’re all a bit cranky because, well, we lost an hour of sleep last night, this day is a fine illustration of how rituals form. Daylight Saving Time was a wartime initiative to help keep things going during the darker months of the year. Since things seem pretty dark all the time now I’m not sure that changing the clocks will do any good, but it does call to mind many religious rituals that started out for practical purposes and accreted symbolic meaning over time. One of my favorites is the use of candles.

Photo credit: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

In the days before electricity, sanctuaries (which were sometimes devoid of windows) required a source of light. The menorah in Jerusalem is perhaps the most famous example, but by no means the only one, of a necessary piece of furniture that grew religious significance. Oil lamps were widely used before candles were invented and they work on the same principle. It didn’t require any special illumination to realize that light is symbolic for creatures that rely heavily upon sight. If you see something, say something. And before you know it candles themselves acquire religious meaning. Just last month some Christians celebrated Candlemas where the title of the day appears to suggest the candles themselves are somehow sacred. Ritual begets ritual. We are meaning-making beings.

Now that we’ve somewhat ironically set the clocks ahead under Trump it might be a good time to reassess. “Rage,” Dylan Thomas wrote in a more modern hymn, “rage against the dying of the light.” Even though Thomas’ light itself extinguished prematurely his message lives on. We’ve lost a month’s worth of morning light. When I step outside this morning it will be darker than it was this time yesterday. But humans habitually look ahead. If I allow myself that luxury as the roll’s being called up yonder, I can perhaps make my way home in the light now that time’s changed. Nature took the light and is now giving it back. Maybe this isn’t the final trump after all. In my more optimistic moments I do believe that candles can be magical in their own right. That’s the power of ritual.

Invoking Imbolc

As the year continues her eternal circle, we find ourselves once again at Imbolc, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Imbolc is an ancient fire festival, and given how chilly our apartment has been these last few weeks, I think I could be downright pagan about it. Dividing the year into eighths, the pre-Christian calendar emphasizes the seasonal aspect of nature. The festival was originally dedicated to the goddess Brighid who became, in her later years, St. Brighid. Naturally, when the Celtic lands were converted, Imbolc was supplanted, somewhat, by the following day—not yet Groundhog Day—Candlemas, or the feast of Mary of the Candles. Diametrically apposed to Samhain, or Halloween, Imbolc celebrates the rekindling of light in a dark time of year. Some have suggested that the festival has roots as early as the Neolithic Period.

One feature of the old religions that was lost with the more transcendent interests of monotheism is the dedication to the earth. Religion, in its earliest forms, grew out of a profound awareness of human connections to the planet that was their home. Without our planet we do not thrive. Even though we’ve learned to catapult ourselves into space, our bodies don’t work so efficiently in zero gravity. (Read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars for the gory details.) We evolved on and are part of the earth. Early peoples knew that instinctively. Their religion reflects that implicitly. Kindling a fire in winter is a small way of encouraging the light and warmth to return.

Stbrigid

Brighid, a goddess who represents the return to fertility with the earliest beginnings of spring, may also represent the earth. It will be at least another month or two before many of us will begin to see the hints of crocuses breaking through the wan grass, but Imbolc is all about turning that corner. The earth that seems to have forsaken us in the desolate winter is now about to welcome us back into the growing time. It is no wonder that, despite efforts of the missionaries, elements of the old religion remained. Whether with candles or bonfires, the pagan goddess Brighid, or the Christian Saint Brighid, ushers in February, our last full month of winter. And tomorrow, the groundhog will remind us once again that we are merely part of the earth.

Inter-species Prognostication

Groundhog Day is a holiday easily forgotten by all but Bill Murray fans and residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The day, however, has a role deep in European folk religion that was reflected in the “cross-quarter days.” From ancient times, the four days of the year that fall precisely between the solstices and equinoxes were known as cross-quarter days, based on the day of the month that rent was due in England (“quarter days”). The Celts recognized this cross-quarter day in early February as Imbolc (later Christianized as Candlemas). Part of the folk religion held that animals had special powers on cross-quarter days, and that fair weather on Imbolc meant that more wintry weather was on the way.

In America, where Groundhog Day has its original burrow, the tradition began among German immigrants. The first historical reference to Groundhog Day was made in 1841 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. By 1886 Punxsutawney had its groundhog Phil and the tradition has continued ever since.

Although it is a lighthearted holiday, I always tell my Hebrew Prophets class (which begins near Groundhog Day) that this is a form of socially accepted prognostication. Few believe that a marmot can predict the weather, but we like to believe that winter is on its way out when the cold starts to feel old and stubborn and we are ready for a few sunny days. The old tradition states that if Phil doesn’t see his shadow he won’t dash fearfully into his den and spring is on its way. Fact is, spring falls six weeks from Groundhog Day, so no matter what the rodent says, spring is on its way. Ancient religions always stress the hope that nature will continue as it has in the past and that spring will follow winter as it should. It is nevertheless a fun day to watch the largest member of the squirrel family amble out of his heated burrow, no doubt confused by all the furless bipeds standing around with cameras, and play the prophet for his fifteen minutes of national fame.

The world's hairiest prophet?