Multiverse Blog

Feb
02
2018

The Groundhog and the Candle

Posted 169 days ago ago by Bryan Mendez
Bryan Mendez

By Dr. Bryan Mendez

February 2nd is celebrated in the United States as both Groundhog’s Day and Candlemas, or Dia de la Candelaria in Spanish. Both celebrations have their roots in astronomical events.

A tapestry from Strasbourg depicting the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple

A tapestry from Strasbourg depicting the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple

Candlemas (Dia de la Candelaria) is a Christian celebration of the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, commemorating Mary's ritual purification after her childbirth. Following ancient Hebrew tradition, this took place 40 days after Jesus was born. Therefore, Candlemas is now celebrated 40 days after Christmas (Dec 25) on February 2nd. Some people do not remove Christmas decorations until this date, as it marks the end of the Christmas season.

These dates are where the first astronomical connection comes into play. The first known celebrations of Christmas on December 25th and Candlemas on February 2nd occurred in Europe in the 4th century AD, using the Julian calendar. Many historians suspect that the December 25th date was selected to coincide with pre-existing Roman festivities celebrating the winter solstice on that date. The Julian Calendar was enacted 400 years earlier in 46 BC by Julius Caesar. At that time the actual, astronomical solstice (the Sun reaching its southernmost location in the sky) occurred on December 23rd. But following older traditions the official festival for the solstice was celebrated on December 25th. By the 4th century AD, the date of the Solstice had slipped in the Julian Calendar to December 21st, where it is located now in the Gregorian Calendar, but the festival date on the 25th remained. 

In modern-day Mexico, Catholics celebrate Dia de la Candelaria by dressing up dolls of baby Jesus and taking them to church to be blessed. Mexican-American families in the United States usually celebrate Dia de la Candelaria with a feast connected to the celebration of the Epiphany, Día de los Reyes, On January 6th. Dia de los Reyes celebrates the arrival of the three wise men (los reyes) in the biblical Nativity story 12 days after Christmas. Throughout much of Latin America this is the day that gifts are given to children, commemorating the gifts that the wise men gave to the Christ child.

At the feast of the Epiphany, celebrants eat la rosca de reyes, a sweet bread roll often baked with dried fruits. Hidden within the bread roll are one or more small figurines of the baby Jesus, called the muñeco. Whoever eats a slice of the bread containing the muñeco will then be responsible for organizing the Dia de la Candelaria festivities on February 2nd. Traditionally, the Día de la Candelaria feast includes tamales and atole, both of which are made from maize. This may connect to indigenous Mexican celebrations near this date where offerings of maize are common.

Groundhog on Laval University campus, Quebec, Canada Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the United States, February 2nd is also celebrated as Groundhog Day. The tradition holds that the end of winter can be predicted on this day, based on the behavior of groundhogs. Around this time, groundhogs who have been hibernating for the winter begin to wake up and come out of their underground dens. If it is sunny and they see their shadow, it frightens them and they run back into their dens to wait six more weeks for the end of winter. If it is cloudy, and they do not see their shadow, the tradition holds that they will stay above ground, and winter’s end is close at hand. The tradition has its origins with German immigrants in Pennsylvania, often called the Pennsylvania Dutch, who used to celebrate Badger Day back in Europe as part of Candlemas. The groundhogs in the Americas became stand-ins for the badgers in German-speaking parts of Europe.

In several European traditions, the weather on Candlemas was said to be a predictor of when winter would end. A sunny day on Candlemas meant that spring would have to wait until the March equinox (when the Sun rises due east, sets due west, and the day and night are equal in length). In German-speaking parts of Europe, this tradition seems to have been encapsulated in the behavior of badgers.

Probably not coincidentally, Candlemas/Groundhog Day also coincides with an ancient Celtic festival called Imbolc. Imbolc is observed on February 1st to celebrate the start of spring at the cross-quarter day, which now occurs on February 3 in the Gregorian calendar. Some traditions of Imbolc held it as a day to divine when the coming of spring would be, considering a sunny Imbolc to indicate a late start to the spring season. This was very likely an influence on the Candlemas/Badger Day traditions that came later.

The cross-quarter days in ancient traditions are the halfway points between the equinoxes and solstices. The two equinoxes (22nd of September and 20th of March) and two solstices (21st of December and June) are known in astronomical tradition as quarter days. They mark the extremes of the motions of the Sun in the sky. Celtic tradition held that the cross-quarter day on November 1st marked the first day of winter. The December solstice was consider mid-winter's day, and the cross-quarter day at the start of February marked the beginning of Spring.

A depiction of Earth's orbit as a circle around the Sun. Earth is shown at 4 different dates marking the equinoxes and solstices. The dates for the cross-quarter days are also shown

A view of the orbit of Earth around the Sun view from the top down. The equinox, solstice, and cross-quarter dates are marked. Note that this diagram is not to scale.

The motions of the Sun are central to many of our modern holidays and celebrations. The winter solstice influenced the date of Christmas, which sets the date of Dia de Reyes and Dia de la Candelaria. Through a coincidence of history, the date of Dia de la Candelaria is adjacent to a cross-quarter day, where other celebrations used the appearance of the Sun in the sky to indicate how much longer winter will last.






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