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The Religious Foundation of Groundhog Day

Does God exist?  It's an important question.We’re all familiar with the major astronomical milestones in the year—the summer and winter solstices, when our hemisphere is tipped maximally toward or away from the sun, and the spring and fall equinoxes, when each day worldwide has roughly 12 hours of sunlight and 12 of darkness. These dates separate the seasons—the spring equinox marks the beginning of spring, and so on. They are to the calendar what north, south, east, and west are to the compass.

In the same way that the distance between the four cardinal compass points are divided by four ordinal points (northeast, southeast, and so on), the seasons defined by the four astronomical dates are divided by four cross-quarter days. These were Gaelic festivals in medieval times. They are Imbolc (February 2), Beltane (May 1), Lughnasadh (August 1), and Samhain (October 31). Imbolc lines up with our Groundhog Day.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that on Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve, or Gaelic Samhain), spirits from the next world could enter ours, which is why ghosts and the dead are associated with Halloween. In Gaelic mythology, the veil between our world and the next became thinner not only on Samhain but for each of the cross-quarter days. These days provided opportunities for divining the future using information from beyond.

In the same way that Christmas subsumed pagan holidays on the winter solstice like Saturnalia and Yule, the Christian holiday of Candlemas subsumed Imbolc (February 2). The Celtic goddess Brigit was associated with Imbolc, but she too was subsumed into Christianity as Saint Brigit.

Both pagans and the Christians who followed them observed nature on Imbolc/Candlemas to glean clues to how much longer winter would last. Would it go the full six-and-a-half weeks until the spring equinox or would it be a more gentle winter?

German immigrants to America had used hedgehogs to help predict the weather. If it was sunny and the hedgehog could see its shadow, winter would go the distance. But if it was cloudy, winter would be shorter. With no hedgehogs in America, they switched to groundhogs. (The two animals are not closely related, but their habitats are similar.)

This Imbolc, whether you follow Punxsutawney Phil (the center of the biggest Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania) or some lesser-known groundhog prognosticator, keep in mind the spiritual origins of the tradition.

Photo credit: wvholst

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Rick T

    The supposedly pagan origin of the date of Christmas has a pretty good alternative explanation, which I support. There is a strong astronomical and Biblical case to be made for Christmas being the date of the magi visit to the then-six-month-old Jesus in 2BC. I give presentations on this, as does Rick Larson, who originated the research. See his web site at http://www.bethlehemstar.net. Let me know if you want to see the presentation, or you can order his DVD.

    So was the original Christmas paganized, or was the original Saturnalia Christianized? I provided above evidence and a source for my view that the former is more reasonable. Do the same for your view if you disagree.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’ll try to remember to review this next December. A Christian explanation for the star looks like an interesting subject to react to. Thanks.

      • Rick T

        Great! Another potential point of agreement!

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