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How Groundhog Day is Related to Candlemas

Updated on October 11, 2016

The Well Bred Woodchuck

... and haz you a candle I might borrow?
... and haz you a candle I might borrow? | Source

Holiday Unrest

The weather is warmer in much of the Midwest this winter than previously, but this trend is not causing people to become happier. The recession and work layoffs are still affecting some people and some new companies offering jobs are not offering them quickly enough. Banks pay almost no interest on smaller savings accounts today - less than 1%. People are tired and angry, with good reason in many cities across America. People are irritable. They are not even happy about some holidays now.

In December, I received emails about how evil the Irish are and how we should eliminate St. Patrick's Day -- That's three months early and the complaints don't usually come in until late February or early March - mailbags full, really. I have no control over St. Patrick's Day, but I like to write about it and continue I will.

However - remarkably - some people have no use for Groundhog Day and are becoming highly verbal about their dislike. I've heard no similar complaints about cousin Easter Bunny - or have I been tin-eared?

A Strange Evolution

Woodchuck/Goundhog | Source

Evolution is debated, but absolutely no candle evolved into a mammal, even if the candle was made with animal fat drippings.

Goundhog Day Transition

As with some other holidays in America, Groundhog Day began as a celebration of something else altogether in Europe and got sidetracked - into the Retail Industry, for one track.

My city is full of Groundhog Day sales and dinner packages and shadow-seeking events across the state that feature different groundhogs. School children learn about the animal and all his rodent cousins, draw pictures of it, write poems, make up songs, and generally have a rollicking good time. Our zoo does a special event with its groundhogs. It's all fun.

Kids are still in school on groundhog Day and I know of no business here that closes for the day, so I don't see how education or business time is lost. However, I think it best that the kids be taught that Goundhog Day is a cultural event for entertainment and tradition and not an accurate prediction of the upcoming weather.

Traditions within culture are important in maintaining history, even when traditions change. Without some events of our own to celebrate, America may more quickly become the world of 1984, in which each single person (marriage is abolished) lives in a small cell of the type often rented to graduate students (hello Ohio State), without entertainment, without holidays, without birthdays, and without much activity outside of work. How dull.

Back in the UK 300 or 400 years ago, some of my ancestors celebrated Candlemas, the forerunner of Groundhog Day.

Some of my ancestors belonged to the Anglican or Presbyterian Churches, and celebrated Candlemas accordingly. It's a sort of tradition like Easter Monday and the Monday after St. Patrick's Day in that it is unknown to many modern people.

In pre-Revolutionary America, the candle of Candlemas was somehow replaced by the hedgehog and subsequently by the groundhog or woodchuck, also called the whistle pig.

Whistle Pig Day sounds a little drunken. How did the candle become a rodent?

So many complaints...
So many complaints... | Source

Candlemas Day, Cleveland OH

Festival of Lights

February 2nd is the Festival or Feast of Lights. It is held in some churches yet today in order to honor the Hebrew ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus. In some places, it is known as a mid-winter holiday.

Mary and Joseph also took the baby Jesus to the Temple to present him to God with thanks on this day in church tradition.

Today, candles for the church year are blessed by the pastor or priest and to the Church, their light is Jesus's light in the world.

The day is also the Feast of St. Brigid and called by still other names.

Presentation of Jesus at 40 Days Old

St. Brigid's Cross

Part of the home decor used to commemorate the beginning the the agricultural year after mid-winter.
Part of the home decor used to commemorate the beginning the the agricultural year after mid-winter. | Source

Midwinter Celebration With Candles

Candlemas is like the Midwinter Festival of the Iroquois Six Nations and the Kwakiutl in that it occurs at the midpoint of the winter, between winter solstice and vernal equinox.

Traditionally, European Christian Churches have held a service and ceremony in which candles are distributed to the congregants for use during the short, darker days of winter in the long wait for spring.

I suspect that culturally, such ceremonious helped some ward off conditions like our modern Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). That's another good reason for holidays and my preventive medicine training votes Aye to that.

Legend has it that when the Germans learned about Candlemas they added their own twist.

The Germans said that if a hedgehog appeared and saw his shadow in a sunny day on Candlemas, then 6 more weeks of winter would be imminent.

Midwinter Celebration With Candles

The Germans said that if a hedgehog appeared and saw his shadow in a sunny day on Candlemas, then 6 more weeks of winter would be imminent. I believe that hedgehogs were eaten by Germans quite often, from the recipes left by two distant German relatives that came to Pennsylvania and subsequently to Ohio.

Surprisingly, the recipes include hedgehog or woodchuck meat loaf, large rodent with sour cream and potatoes, and similar. Thus, I believe the animal was added, in part, to liven the menu.

German settlers retained the hedgehog clause as they settled into the Pittsburgh PA area in the early 1700s and some diaries and old documents mention a celebration with a groundhog as soon as the early 1840s. My idea is that the tradition was celebrated as soon as the Germans settled and no one wrote about it.

Punxsutawney Phil was invented by Americans around 1887 (Reference: Punxsutawney Groundhog Day Club archives) -- The area was scarce in hedgehogs, so a groundhog would have to do. Tweet Phil at

Some individuals have been writing in blogs and news forum with comments that Goundhog Day is an abuse of Phil's rights, since people are bothering him and putting him under surveillance. Sad to say, this may be fact. They also say that the people who know Phil are a cult. A groundhog cult is a bit far fetched, but not as far fetched as a secret Whistle Pig Society, if there is one. Other people don't like the advertising for the related Retail Sales, but I think that we can ignore those ads.

In the end, I hope Phil receives a special meal and some treats every February 2 and school children can continue to enjoy the in-school holiday.


From Church to Secular

In America, the faith-based portion of Candlemas dropped out of celebration among many communities except perhaps by pagan traditions of the solstice and equinox, to be replaced by the more secular Groundhog Day. This is a little like the Christian vs. secular Christmas we have globally, the Christmas tree also being a German tradition.

We can still have either of the Candlemas traditions we choose - or none. Banning any of them causes undue strife, but the groundhog must be well treated. I like the candle and think the rodent is fun.

The Big Fun Holiday

Goundhog Day Compared to Fritz Leiber's "The Big Holiday" Sci-Fi Story

Fritz Leiber was one of the leading futurist writers in the Golden Age of Sci-Fi and his stories and books are applicable to our own century. He developed a holiday that I'd like to see. It's more fun than Groundhog Day, since fun is exactly it's focus. Some folks today feel Groundhog Day is a worthless distraction, but Leiber's story below shows why it is not.

In his story The Big Holiday , every community on Mars, Earth and other planets in 2077 celebrated the closing of business for a few days one week a year.They did this to make up for the lack of joy in holidays of the 20th Century - all that commercialism.

Citizens dressed as Hurry, Worry, Money, Success, and Glamor were ritualistically run out of town, where they changed into celebration gear and returned on foot to join the days-long party. There, the town celebrated Love, Friendship, and Laziness. Anyone that tried to work or discuss business was forced to turn his hat upside down on his head. Skits, plays, music, and a feast were enjoyed. People began to remember old celebrations - the clambake, the cocktail party, the get together, the fishing trip, the poker game, and about 50 others.

We need time to play, to recreate, and to get to know one another better. The Soviet Union celebrated few holidays and for decades enforced a 7-day work week. It did fall apart in the end.

Reference: "The Big Holiday," 1953; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ; The Best of Fritz Leiber by Fritz Leiber; 1974, pp 165-172.


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