Reprinted with permission from School of the Seasons.

Candlemas is one of my favorite holidays of the year with its promise of a new beginning. Poised at the start of early spring, when buds and bare green stems are poking through the soil in some more temperate parts of the country, like the Pacific Northwest where I live, it renews my belief that I can make my life better, shed the old skins of past beliefs and bad habits and launch into a new bloom.

The promises of the return of the light and the renewal of life made at the winter solstice are now becoming manifest. It's the dawn of the year. It's time to creep out of the hibernation of winter, cautiously like the Ground Hog who supposedly emerges on this day to check his shadow.

In fact, I first celebrated this early spring holy day as Groundhog's Day. One of my favorite high school teachers, Mrs. Schiffrin (she was my debate coach) had a special fondness for Groundhog's Day and in honor of her, Georgette, my debate partner, and I made a papier mache ground hog which we presented to her with great ceremony. She was delighted. I suspect there was probably some Pennsylvania Dutch in her background for they celebrate this holiday with great enthusiasm and silliness.

Last year I read an entire book written by Don Yoder about how the Pennsylvania Dutch celebrate Groundhog's Day. It's fascinating to me to see how the ancient themes of the holiday-emergence, weather prediction, protection and fertility--converge in this tradition. In German folklore, the animal associated with Candlemas was the Badger. In fact, Candlemas is sometimes called Badger Day in Germany. If the badger saw his shadow (if it was sunny), then he would crawl back in for four more weeks of winter weather.

The Badger is a shy animal (like the Groundhog) who lives in the woods. Badger fat was used for healing wounds, illnesses and bad feelings between friends and neighbors (now we know why the badger was hiding!). A badger's tooth was protection from sickness, hail and storms, while badger paws could be worn as amulets to ward off danger. Protection is another theme of this holiday: in Celtic countries, Brigid's crosses were hung for protection while the candles blessed in the Catholic church on Candlemas could protect one from evil all year around.

In some places, the bear was the animal to watch on Candlemas. If the bear "could see over the mountain," that is, if the weather was clear, he would go back into hibernation for six weeks. Yoder speculates that the song "The Bear Went over the Mountain" might be derived from this belief. The bear is a true hibernator; it sleeps through the winter with a slower heart rate and a lower body temperature, without eating or urinating or defecating. Many other mammals that seem to hibernate, like raccoons, skunks, woodchucks (groundhogs), chipmunks, hamsters and hedgehogs, actually go into dormancy, rather than true hibernation, and wake up occasionally to move around and eat.

According to Stan Zervanos, a professor of biology, groundhogs are anti-social, even hostile, when they encounter each other during most of the year. But as they are beginning to wake up from hibernation in early February, male groundhogs explore their territory and pay preliminary trips to the female groundhogs in the area. Mating won't take place until early March, but this is definitely a time of courtship for groundhogs, recalling Valentine's Day folklore about the courting of the birds at this time of the year.

In Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Groundhog has become a symbol around which to rally for light-hearted celebration. In the 1930's, Groundhog Lodges were founded with the members gathering to celebrate the Groundhog with banquets, programs and song. Yoder publishes many of these songs in his book. I'll just reproduce one so you can celebrate Groundhog's Day with song: February Second, sung to the tune of John Brown's Body. (This song comes from the Quarryville Slumbering Groundhog Lodge.)

Let the scientific fakirs gnash their teeth and stomp with rage-
Let astrologers with crystals wipe such nonsense from the page-
We hail the King of Prophets, who's the world's outstanding Sage-
Today the Groundhog comes!

Let the makers of the almanac from Dr. Miles to Hicks-
Let the goosebones and the woolyworms resort to all their tricks-
Let the Bureau of the Weather do its part by throwing bricks-
Today the Groundhog comes!

And while his human neighbors have to guess when the winter goes,
The Groundhog with his triflin' labor, measures, calculates and knows
If spring will soon be with us, or we'll still have ice and snows-
Today the Groundhog comes!

His findings are most accurate, authentic and exact,
On February (second day) he states the simple fact
And none from his decision can a single point detract-
Today the Groundhog comes!

Glory! Glory! To the Groundhog,
Glory! Glory! To the Groundhog,
Glory! Glory! To the Groundhog,
Today the Prophet comes!

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