Consider the Groundhog

“Presentation in the Temple” by Fra Angelico. Come to think of it, in these portrayals with the swaddling clothes and halo, Jesus does look like a candle. Do you think he ever sees his own shadow?


By some strange coincidence, February 2nd is both the rather goofy custom of Groundhog’s Day and the rather more solemn feast of Candlemas, a holiday celebrating the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, his Meeting with Simeon and Anna, and the Purification of Mary. Random, right? Not at all. The two are intimately connected. (The Super Bowl, however, is a moveable feast and so, no matter what anybody tells you today, not particularly related to this episode in the story of divine revelation.)
Christians have been observing the interconnected events commemorated by Candlemas since the 4th or 5th century. Mary took Jesus with her to the temple to be dedicated as the firstborn and for her own rite of purification 40 days after he was born according to Jewish law. According to the New Testament Simeon recognized that the child would be a light to the Gentiles, hence the candle motif and the Eastern church’s name for the day: Hypapante, or “Meeting.”

As Candlemas falls close to the midpoint of winter, it accrued additional cultural significance in many countries. It marked the really, truly bitter end of the Christmas season, when all the decorations must come down and people mentally moved on to wondering when they could safely plant some more food already. Around this time the wild beasts, dormant during the brunt of the season, would tentatively emerge to gauge if the worst of the weather had passed or if a longer winter’s nap might be in order. In the UK, folks expected to see anything from wolves to snakes to bears, but badgers were somehow singled out as nature’s forecasters in this regard – I’m guessing because they made for less dangerous viewing. Badgers apparently being in shorter supply in Germany and the New World, the Pennsylvania Dutch made do with a woodchuck or groundhog.

So Punxsutawney Phil is essentially the Easter Bunny of Candlemas.

Incidentally, if you’re one of the 3 in 7 Americans who can never remember if seeing his shadow means six more weeks of winter if it’s the other way around perhaps it’s the French influence. They have contradictory traditional sayings which predict that a sunny Candlemas, or Chandeleur, portends the final hour and/or the first of forty more days of winter. What the French can agree on, however, is that crepes must be eaten today or dire consequences will ensue.

Making crepes the chocolate bunnies of Candlemas.

Different traditions focus on different aspects of the day, so if you’d like to get observant, you can start almost anywhere:
• Light candles and have crepes for dinner. (The French wheat industry thanks you!)
• Host a Wives’ Feast. (This and “Women’s Christmas” on Epiphany are opportunities for people of a certain gender who may find themselves standing in the kitchen for most of the holidays to sit down and talk about something other than oven temperatures and dietary restrictions.)
• I realize no one’s ever thought of this before, but how about a pancake breakfast at church?
• Have child dedications during service and/or a special blessing or time of prayer for the newborns and new parents in the congregation.
• Pass out candles during the benediction to symbolize carrying the light of the world out with us as we go. Invite people to carry and light them in a dark place or as a symbol of their holding a dark place up in prayer. Or set up candles around the room labeled with various “areas of life” (health, finances, relationships, work, etc.) and offer a “Meeting” time at the end of the service. Invite people to light their candle in some area of life in which they want to see Jesus and send people out with them lit. (According to tradition, anyone who makes it home with the candle still lit won’t die that year: BONUS!)

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