Geologic Column: February 2: A day long celebrated for its seasonal ties

Grounghog Day from Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Credit: Anthony Quintano, Wikimedia Commons. Grounghog Day from Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Credit: Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0

By John Copeland

February is an odd month. It is the only month not named for a god, a number or a Roman Emperor. It is named for a Roman festival, which seems appropriate this year given that February kicks off with the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. The festival, Februa, was a revel of purification. (Super Bowl Sunday is kind of the opposite!)

Februa predates ancient Rome; the festival arose to honor the Etruscan deity, Februus, the god of purification and the underworld. It was a time of atonement for the Etruscans and Romans. It may seem premature to have any regrets when the year has just begun, but before Julius Caesar reformed Rome’s calendar, February was the last month of the year.

While the Romans were “festively purifying” themselves, other groups were celebrating a fire goddess, sheep, furry animals (though not groundhogs), and much later, church candles. All of these celebrations occurred on Feb. 2. At first glance, these rites may seem unrelated, but on the contrary, they are indeed.

Around the world, our ancestors celebrated specific days of the year as part of the cycle of the seasons. Feb. 2 is one of those days, falling exactly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. By this date, daylight has increased markedly since the winter solstice some six weeks earlier. In ancient times, this halfway point was called a Cross Quarter Day.

Nearly every ancient culture divided the year into four parts marked by the Winter Solstice, the Vernal Equinox, the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox. Today, we still recognize these as demarcating our seasons. Our ancestors further divided the year at the halfway points between the solstices and the equinoxes. These divisions are the Cross Quarter Days: Feb. 2, May 1, Aug. 1 and Oct. 31.

Feb. 2 is the first Cross Quarter Day of the year. The ancient Celts celebrated the first stirrings of spring and the onset of lactation in ewes, soon to start lambing, with the Imbolc festival. The 2nd is also Brigid’s Day. Originally revered as a Celtic fire goddess, Brigid was so popular that she was embraced by the early Catholic Church and canonized as a saint. Both Brigid the fire goddess and St. Brigid were associated with sacred fire, holy wells and springs. And both heralded the transition from the dark season of winter into springtime.

In the early Christian tradition, Feb. 2 was celebrated as Candlemas, when all of the candles that would be used in churches during the coming year were blessed — it was a mass for the candles. In medieval times, when the festival became more widespread, Candlemas became a festival of lights. During the dark and gloomy February, the shadowy recesses of medieval churches twinkled brightly as a procession of the congregation carried lit candles around the church and the candles were blessed by the priest. The parishioners took these candles home, where they were thought to be talismans to ward off storms, demons and other evils. The custom lasted in England until the Reformation when it was banned as promoting veneration of magical objects. Even so, the symbol of lighted candles was too ingrained in popular culture to be entirely cast aside. In many areas of Great Britain, traces of the festival lingered until recently.

Today, of course, we celebrate Feb. 2 as Groundhog Day, although originally the celebration wasn’t about groundhogs. In France and England, folk traditions maintained that Feb. 2 was when bears emerged from hibernation to inspect the weather. In Germany, meanwhile, it was the badgers that emerged to check the weather. But if the bears or the badgers chose to return to their dens, it portended at least another 40 days of severe weather.

In colonial times, German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, bringing their traditions with them, including the hibernation day celebration. However, instead of badgers, they found lots of groundhogs, or woodchucks. The German settlers quickly embraced the “groundhog” to fit their lore.

The earliest-known American reference to Groundhog Day can be found in the Historical Society of Berks County in Reading, Pa. In 1841, James Morris, a storekeeper in nearby Morgantown, Pa., recorded in his diary:

“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

Today, Groundhog Day has grown into a full-blown festival, with Punxsutawney Phil presiding. But even if Phil sees his shadow, you can rest assured the days are getting longer and winter is coming to an end.

John Copeland

John Copeland headshot. Credit: Fran LoCascio

Copeland is a filmmaker in California who has produced television programs ranging from “Babylon 5” to “Faces of Earth” (produced with the American Geosciences Institute). Copeland also works with MIT’s Experimental Study Group to instruct undergraduate science and engineering students in the art of visual communication and storytelling. The views expressed are his own.

Monday, February 2, 2015 - 06:00

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