Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Day: A Long Tradition of Looking Toward Spring

Several years ago I was given a new insight into the origins of Groundhog Day. I was a new member of an Episcopal Church which was in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition. I was also new to all things liturgical, since I had grown up Baptist. One of the liturgical services celebrated by that church was The Feast of the Presentation, which always falls on February 2nd. At the beginning of the service, one of the choir members came to the front and began chanting the dates that were set for Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter. I thought it was rather unusual to be chanting what sounded like announcements upcoming church services.

Afterwards, the priest explained to me that in medieval times, the tradition was that on The Feast of the Presentation the bishop would announce the dates for Easter. Since Easter is determined by lunar dates it can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. Among agrarian cultures, is was quite vital to know when Easter would fall since everyone knew that planting should start on Good Friday. I can remember from my childhood in rural Alabama there were still many who farmed (usually to supplement their mill worker incomes). I remember the old folks swearing that you had to get your first crop planted on Good Friday.

Anyway, my priest went on to tell how Ground Hog Day was a Puritan anti-Catholic device for the New World colonists. The Puritans were so anti-liturgical, they did not want anything resembling the Feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas as it is also known. They did, however, need a way to inform the community when they could plant their crops. Hence, the concept of Ground Hog Day was implemented. Think about it, Ground Hog Day, on February 2, will let people know whether there will be six more weeks of winter. In other words, will Easter arrive in March of April?

I have to say I was amazed. I had never associated the ground hog and his shadow with how late Easter would arrive. If the priest was correct, the Puritans were successful in giving us a tradition to herald the arrival of spring that doesn’t remind us in the least of Catholic ritual, or even church. I decided to google Ground Hog Day to check out my priest’s version of its origin. I didn’t find it stated so explicitly, but on Wikipedia I saw that Ground Hog Day “bears some similarities to the medieval Catholic holiday of Candlemas” which actually harks back to an even older pagan holiday of Imbolc.

So this Ground Hog Day, you can wait in anticipation to see if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, or you can just look at the calendar to see when Easter is this year. I will say from my own planting experience, you can’t rule out a late freeze before Easter. So when you see all those flats of flower seedlings for sale, just remember to wait until Good Friday to plant anything, or you may just have to buy everything again after that late freeze kills what you put out in the yard.


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