It’s interesting to have a birthday on a holiday, like Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day. (Maybe not so much Christmas, since that holiday is so big that birthdays get forgotten.)
It’s even more interesting to have a birthday that falls on two holidays. That’s me. My birthday is on Groundhog’s Day. And it’s also on the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.
When I was a little girl, I knew about Groundhog’s Day, of course. I didn’t know about the Presentation until I was all grown up and became Orthodox. And I wondered, if my parents had been Orthodox, whether I’d have been named Anna instead of Charlotte.
Occasionally, I wondered what Groundhog’s Day and the Presentation of our Lord had to do with each other. Is it just a coincidence that they’re on the same day? Or is there some sort of historical connection?
In the early years of the Church, when the Presentation first shows up in the historical record, it was called the 40 days after Theophany, because Theophany and Christmas were still combined. When they were separated, the Presentation moved so that it was 40 days after Christmas.
(The Presentation of our Lord, of course, has nothing to do with the pagan festival Imbolc. The date was chosen because our Lord was presented in the Temple by his parents on the 40th day after his birth, according to Jewish law.)
Anyway, in Europe, the Presentation was considered a festival of light. The Presentation is remembered in the hymn of St. Symeon, which we sing every time we celebrate Vespers:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.
So it was natural that the Presentation was celebrated with light. In the Middle East, that meant oil lamps. In Europe, where olive oil was rare and expensive, it meant candles.
So, in Europe, the Presentation was celebrated with processions and candles. People began bringing candles to church to be blessed. Over time, the feast came to be called Candlemas. And it was considered a pivotal point in the church year, where we shift from thinking about the birth of our Lord to his passion, death, and resurrection.
It was also a pivotal point in the year in another way. It was late winter, a time for assessing whether you had enough food stored up to last until spring. And not just for the people, but for the animals as well. Was there enough fodder to keep them until the grass came in? Or would you be better off butchering some now, so that the people could eat and the other animals would more readily survive?
So at Candlemas time, weather forecasters tried to determine how much winter was left. It was important. It could literally be a matter of life or death. There were many, many folk rhymes that would tell you what to expect. Like this one from Scotland:
If Candlemas day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter to come and mair,
If Candlemas day be wet and foul,
The half of winter’s gone at Yule.
Or this one from Germany:
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until the May.
In many parts of Europe, not just the weather, but the behavior of hibernating animals on Candlemas Day was part of the forecasting system. In Germany, the hedgehog was most commonly consulted. When German settlers came to the New World, they brought their system of forecasting with them, but in their new home there were no hedgehogs. So they consulted the groundhog instead.
May you have a joyous feast today, whatever the weather!
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