Groundhogs, Candlemas, St. Brigid and spring

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

In a recent class, I asked the 7th and 8th graders that I teach on Sunday if they knew what season was upcoming in our faith. The answer I sought was Lent, the 40 days of reflection, sacrifice and preparation for Easter but what one of the kids replied was “Spring!”

His voice had the joy of anticipation and so I replied, yes, spring is coming but what about a season in church, one in advance of Easter. And that time, he said, “Lent.” But he was right with his first answer too.

Today, February 2, is what most Americans know as Groundhog Day, a time when officials in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania bring a groundhog fondly known as Phil, to see if winter is at an end. According to folklore, if the groundhog sees his shadow – if it’s sunny – there will be six more weeks of winter but if it’s a cloudy day and he doesn’t, then it’s six weeks until spring. So it’s the same either way – just a difference in perspective.

Since Punxsutawney Phil gets all the media attention, it seems many believe that he’s the only groundhog to predict the end of winter but in my opinion, it matters – if it does at all – what a groundhog in your own neck of the woods would see if he ventured out of the burrow.

Although Groundhog Day is a transplant from Europe where it was once a bear in France and a badger in Germany, the observance of the day for other reasons is much older.

In the Catholic faith, it’s Candlemas or the Presentation of The Lord, marking the date on which the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple forty days after his birth. Since Jesus is the Light of the world, it’s a day that marks hope and light. Since the 7th century, candles for the remainder of the year have been blessed on this day, hence the name Candlemas.

It’s also the feast of St. Brigid, honoring Brigid of Kildare, one of several patron saints of Ireland. Yes, St. Patrick is the best known but there are others. St. Brigid has ties to a Celtic goddess named Brigantia. Both are associated with – we have a theme going here – of spring, light, and in this case, dawn.

In the ancient Celtic calendar, February 2 is Imbolc – a day that marked the halfway point between winter and the spring equinox. It was a day of hope because it meant that spring, the season of new birth and light, was not far away.

Unless you happen to be Catholic, you may not have heard of any significance of the date except for Groundhog Day but it’s a day that celebrates the return of spring, a season when the days are longer and lighter.

In my family tree, February 2 is also the birthdate of one of my great-grandfathers, Thomas Jefferson Lewis Jr, born on that date in 1888. He was the seventh son of a seventh son and a man I wish I could have known. He died the year before I was born but I learned a great deal of Lewis family history from his youngest brother. Since genealogy is one of my passions, I’ve followed the family history back to both Ireland and to Wales.

So, the question of whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow or not is moot, but the day is a time to remember that although the days have been dreary and gray of late, we’re halfway to spring, a season of light and hope and renewal so hang on – it’s coming.

-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a former journalist and editor who is now a freelance writer and author who lives in Neosho, MO.