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You Call it Groundhog Day, We call it Imbolc
By Peg Aloi

I trudge over the snow-covered lawn to my backdoor, ignoring my earlier tracks and breaking new ones. I enter the house this way each night, initially because I misplaced my keys, but now because I like to use this roundabout path. It allows to look up at the huge bare trees silhoetted against the blue night sky, and to check the birdfeeders, to see if the starlings, bluejays, cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows (not to mention the maurading squirrels) need more food. Crunching through the white crust, made glassy and sugary from a recent sleet storm on top of a foot of powdery snow, the sound is enormous: crunch, crunch, CRUNCH.... I am a kid again, smashing my boots onto frozen puddles and frost-rimed grass, whacking at icicles with a stick, just to hear the sound of frozen water breaking.

As I usually do, I look up to gaze upon the moon... but I can't see it. She is shrouded in greyish, opaque mist... her light gives the clouds form but not brightness. She wears the frozen fog like a gossamer cloak, through which she may peek at any moment... for now, I can see the surface of the snow reflecting the lights of neighboring houses, lamps, televisions, throwing gleaming color across the white expanse of snow-lawn, shimmering now blue, now orange, now pale green....

I think of the approaching festival of Imbolc, the midwinter fire festival honoring Brigid, and I picture the beautiful Irish goddess up there beside her sister the Moon, also wrapped in a white gossamer cloak, both of them aglow from the cold air... offering us their gifts of healing and hope as we wait for a brief respite from the single-digit temperatures, a thaw, a day or two when the snows melt away, the buds tremble with incipient growth and all living creatures feel a small, fiery flutter deep within our beings, as we whisper, gladly, "Spring will come again! Spring will come again!"

A Day to Divine the Weather

From the time we are schoolchildren in this country, we are taught the folklore of Groundhog Day, one of the last surviving vestiges of weather divination from old European customs. If, on February 2nd, the groundhog (most notably "Punxsutawney Phil" in the small Pennsylvanian town that bears his name) sees his shadow, we may expect six more weeks of winter. If he does not, good weather will arrive sooner. It is largely a meaningless holiday, whether it is sunny or cloudy on this day has not been shown to have much effect on how soon spring arrives. But the history of Groundhog Day is far more complex than what it has become: a staged event in which poor Phil is observed in the glare of television cameras so our local meteorologists have a cute sound byte and a brief close-up of his blinking, bewildered groundhog face, a yearly ritual that appears on the morning news. The origin of Groundhog Day is derived from earlier celebrations held on the cross-quarter day of February 2nd, dates variously known as Brigid's Night in Ireland (festival of the Celtic goddess of poetry, birth, weddings, smithcraft, and healing), Oimelc/Imbolc/Imbolg in Scotland, and Candlemas in England. The cross-quarter days (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasa) were always associated in ancient times with divination -- the veil between the worlds is believed to be its thinnest, and the balance of energies between solstice and equinox was thought to be very significant.

The type of divination associated with each tends to be associated to the purpose of the festival or the most crucial matters pertaining to the season. For example, Beltane was a time of planting and mating of livestock; so humans practice fertility rites and divination involving marriage and romance. Samhain, being the dark time before winter and associated with the risk of death from starvation or exposure, usually has rites of communing with or honoring the dead. Lughnasa, the time of harvest, is a time of thanksgiving, but also a time of sacrifice, reflecting the killing of part of the herd to feed the community through winter; these rites often involved ritual slaying of a harvest lord and fire divination (scrying) to give strength for the coming months. At Imbolc (which means "in the belly"; Oimelc refers to milk; both terms are said to connect to the animals known to give birth at this time: sheep), when it is still very much winter in the Northern lands, this was naturally a time to divine the return of warmth and growth.

Imbolc was known as Brigid's Night in Ireland, and was celebrated, like the other cross-quarter festivals, from the eve of the holiday through the following night. Brigid, (pronounced "Breed" and also known as Brigit, Bridget, Brighid and Brid; she gives her name to our word "bride") as the patroness of healing and birth, was honored with sacred bonfires, symbolizing the heat of the lifeforce, kindled on this night. Fires purify and cleanse, and the fires were often utilized in rites to bless livstock, as they were at Yule. Others seeking Brigid's blessing, particularly smiths and poets or artists, also saw their own vocations blessed by these fires: the smith, for whom fire was a necessary tool for his art, and the poet, whose creative imagination was blessed with the fire of inspiration.

Brigid and Mary: Healing Goddesses

As the Roman Christian Church sought to usurp this holiday (as they also did with Christmas, Easter, All Soul's Day, and Lammas, among others, which are all based on pagan festivals), they changed the name to Candlemas, thus retaining the symbols of fire. Candles were blessed by clergy, and chapels were decorated with many burning candles. Candlemas later became, for the Catholics, the Feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Ireland in particular, with its strong Catholic tradition, many of the early pagan goddess festivals were converted to days honoring the Virgin Mary. That February 2nd became a rite of purification has several implications. First Imbolc and Brigid's Night both featured fires of purification. Second, February 2 was forty days after Christ's birth; it was believed that women were impure for six weeks after giving birth, and so for Mary to become pure again this holy day was necessary. As with Candlemas, churches were filled with burning candles to honor Mary's purity -- and parishioners received candles blessed by the priests. Catholics also used their blessed candles in a rite the following day called St. Blaise's Day: parishioners were blessed with the consecrated candles held to their throats to help prevent colds and flu -- maybe this is subconsciously meant to offer healing to the throat (heart) chakra, as yet another holdover to the festival of Brigid, patroness of women about to be betrothed.

Why a Groundhog?

The transition of Candlemas and other ancient celebrations to Groundhog Day dates back to the time of the Roman conquest of Northern Europe: the Christian celebration of Candlemas was associated with songs like this one:

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Come, winter, have another flight
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.

This practice of divining the waether on this day spread to Germany, and was brought to this country by some of its first German settlers, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch: hence the location of the most famous groundhog. Also, the grounfhog (also known affectionately as a woodchuck) was not the original prototypical weather-divining creature: in Europe it was a hedgehog. But early American settlers were nothing if not adaptable, and so the local creature most closely resembling a hedgehog was chosen for this ritual. Like hedgehogs, groundhogs are no-nonsense, practical animals; the same can be said for bears and badgers, who were also associated with weather divination in European folklore. If a groundhog sees his shadow on the 2nd, some inner sense tells him it's not spring yet (does he feel the chill in the air most clear winter days have? or is the sunny day from an early thaw, which often presages a return to wintry weather?) -- and he hightails it back to his burrow. Likewise, humans observe midwinter as a milestone, a moment which is on the cusp of change, between the harsh, cold winds of winter and the fragrant, sensual breezes of spring.

All Earth's Critters

Groundhogs are exceedingly shy, and exceptionally cute. They abound in the Northeast, and as a child in western New York State, I saw them often on drives through the country, placidly sitting on their haunches, nibbling grasses, or slowly scampering back to their burrows when a passing car scared them. That these smart, unassuming creatures, who I have admired since I was very young, are associated with this holiday I now observe as the Feast of Imbolc, or the feast of Februa, has special meaning for me now. I used to wonder why groundhogs had anything to do with predicting the weather. Now, after a lifetime spent cherishing all nature has to offer, and the last thirteen years spent honoring and learning from the many gods, goddesses, sprites, devas, fairies, dryads and other inhabitants of the natural world, I understand that all is at it should be.

The earthy god of the woodlands, Pan, is revered by many witches at Imbolc, who call on him to awaken the flora and fauna in spring, and to bless them with his fiery fertility, passion and ecstasy. Pan is the perfect balance to Brigid, whose fiery energy is centered upon healing, creativity and purification. As man and beast approach a new season of rejuvenation and rebirth, they remember again what they need to do to reawaken, to survive and flourish. Just as Brigid bestows her blessings upon humans according to their needs, so Pan shares his wily knowhow and animal passion with the beasts and birds. And that includes the groundhog. May he return to sleep after his brief outing in the morning... to his groundhog burrow, comfortable and built to design as only a groundhog knows how to build... may he return to his warm, calm, unassuming, groundhog dreams, where he nibbles grasses, sits proudly up on his haunches, and waves shyly at people out for a drive in the country.

Used with permission of the author and The Witches Voice


Other graphics courtesy of:

Robin Wood
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This page last updated on December 27, 2003