“If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain, Go winter, and come not again.”
Groundhog Day or Candlemas?
On February 2nd a quaint tradition unfolds, known well to schoolchildren and adults alike. The fate of Spring hangs in the balance as a burrowing animal looks for its shadow. But where did the this tradition come from?
For centuries, February 2nd has been celebrated as Candlemas, a Christian Feast Day. Candlemas is also called the Feast of the Presentation, because it honors the day that Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. In bringing their child to the Temple and offering a sacrifice, Jesus’ parents were following the Mosaic law (specifically Leviticus 12:6). As the Gospel of Luke recounts:
“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (Luke 2:22)
The painting at the top of this article shows the holy man Simeon blessing the Christ child at the Temple.
Why is Candlemas on February 2nd?
The date of Candlemas is always February 2nd because it is exactly 40 days (inclusive) after Christmas on December 25th. The Mosaic law stated that 40 days was the period of purification after the birth of a child, and so the presentation took place 40 days after Jesus was born. Incidentally, February 2nd is also halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so the date has always had significance for ancient people.
So What’s the Connection to Groundhog Day?
Candlemas became linked to weather predictions about the end of winter because of an old English poem:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go winter, and come not again.
It makes sense that early February was a good time to prognosticate about the weather, especially as February 2nd marks the midpoint between Winter and Spring. And the English poem appears to be the source of the shadow connection: “fair and bright” = sun = shadows = more winter, while “clouds and rain” = no sun = no shadows = spring arriving soon. It seems counterintuitive (why should a sunny day mean more winter?), but this is the exact pattern that Groundhog Day follows.
The name Candlemas refers the traditional processions and blessing of candles that came to characterize the feast day. To learn more about the symbols and practices of Candlemas, as well as traditional activities, check out this Building Faith article by Sharon Ely Pearson: Candlemas: History and Traditions.
Featured image: Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Fra Angelico, 1442.