February 2, 2012 – So Much More than a Groundhog!

Happy Candlemas/Feast of the Presentation of the Lord/Groundhog Day/Imbolc/Lupercalia to all!

This is surely an important day, based on the many layers of tradition and meaning assigned to this otherwise unremarkable-sounding day. It is a day deeply-layered within many traditions – following is an abbreviated summary of some of the major markings of the day.

Romans celebrated Februa, also known as Februatio, the Roman festival of ritual purification, later incorporated into Lupercalia. The festival, commemorating spring washing or cleaning is old, and possibly of Sabine (pre-Roman) origin. According to Ovid, Februare as a Latin word which refers to means of purification derives from an earlier Etruscan word referring to purging.

In turn, the Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a very ancient, pre-Roman pastoral festival,to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia subsumed Februa, an earlier-origin spring cleansing ritual held on the same date, which gives the month of February its name.

Traditionally the Western term “Candlemas” (or Candle Mass) referred to the practice whereby a priest on 2 February blessed beeswax candles for use throughout the year, some of which were distributed to the faithful for use in the home. In Poland the feast is called wi tem Matki Bo ej Gromnicznej. This name refers to the candles that are blessed on this day, called gromnicy, since these candles are lit during (thunder) storms and placed in windows to ward off storms.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, since the liturgical revisions of the Second Vatican Council, this feast has been referred to as the Feast of Presentation of the Lord, with references to candles and the purification of Mary de-emphasised in favor of the Prophecy of Simeon the Righteous. Pope John Paul II connected the feast day with the renewal of religious vows.

Pope Innocent XII believed Candlemas was created as an alternative to Roman Paganism, as stated in a sermon on the subject:

Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.

The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which falls on 2 February, celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches, it is one of the twelve Great Feasts. Other traditional names include Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and the Meeting of the Lord. In the Roman Catholic Church the “Feast of the Presentation of the Lord” is a Feast Day, the major feast between the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle on January 25 and the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle on February 22. In some Western liturgical churches, Vespers (or Compline) on the Feast of the Presentation marks the end of the Epiphany season. In the Church of England, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a Principal Feast celebrated either on February 2 or on the Sunday between January 28 and February 3.

In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, folks celebrate Imbolc (also Imbolg), or St Brigid’s Day, an Irish festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is celebrated on February 1 or 2 (or February 12, according to the Old Calendar) These dates fall approximately halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The festival was observed in Gaelic Ireland during the Middle Ages.The holiday was, and for many still is, a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods, candles or a bonfire if the weather permits. Imbolc is traditionally a time of weather prognostication, and the old tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers came from their winter dens is perhaps a precursor to the North American Groundhog Day. A Scottish Gaelic proverb about the day is:

“The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.”

Fire and purification are an important aspect of this festival. Brigid is the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. As both goddess and saint she is also associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. Saint Brigid’s feast day is on the 1st February celebrated as St Brigid’s Day in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and by some Anglicans. The Gaelic festival coincides with Imbolc, which has sometimes been identified as the remnant of a prehistoric pagan festival associated with Brigid.

All in all, I feel kind of cheated as here in the USA in 2012, all we get is Punxsutawney Phil!