If Candlemas be bright and clear
there’ll be two winters in the year.
— traditional adage from Scotland
There are many weather marking days throughout the year. Candlemas, falling on 2 February, was the day that our ancestors began to get nervous about the spring. A fine Candlemas portends a bad harvest and winter dearth; a miserable Candlemas indicates a good year. This belief can be found all over Eurasia. But our ancestors were not worried that spring wouldn’t come or some such nonsense about the light never returning. No, they were worried that a string of sunny days in early February might cause early awakening in the fields and orchards. Farmers dread sunny weather in February because it is still cold and will remain more cold than warm until after the vernal equinox. However, there is enough light to promote growth if there is a temporary warming.
Winter grains and grasses may start growing in a run of sunny days only to be winter killed with the next week’s cold snap. With a cold autumn, fruit trees may count enough chill days that an early warm spell may prompt buds to open their protective walls too early. Then even if they escape frost damage, there won’t be insects to pollinate the flowers, so there won’t be fruit. In climates with snow-cover insulating the soil, a late winter thaw may remove that protective layer, exposing bare earth to desiccation, erosion, and deeper freezing. All in all, our ancestors didn’t want spring weather to come too early. In Germany it was said that the shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than the sun. The wolf might kill one lamb; a dearth of grass will wipe out his flock.
We’ve forgotten so much practical knowledge that we don’t understand our ancestors or their traditions. One of the cold incongruities of the Enlightenment is a general darkening of the world around us. We took a sharp turn into solely human affairs (some people might call it hubris affairs and might limit the “we” substantially, Herself might be one of those people). We forgot how to observe and know the world — the world we depend upon and are enmeshed within.
Consider how we acquire knowledge in our “enlightened” times. We break things apart, isolate those broken parts, place them in unnatural and unreal conditions, and then poke and prod and inflict pain until we see what we think is normal behavior in whatever response our abnormal exertions elicited. We remove the life from what we study and remove what we study from the life that makes it function. We look at dead particulate things and expect them to tell us anything at all useful about living connected systems. We don’t even name things to understand them. We are mingy with words like life and consciousness and feeling, reserving them to ourselves.
This egocentric darkening of our world makes it difficult to see. And lest you think that we are leaving that arrogance behind with the other nasties of colonialism and patriarchy, examine our best ideas about providing ourselves with food in this difficult future we now face (which difficulty is a direct result of the egocentric darkening of our minds).
At any rate, on this day of Candlemas we see a whole boodle of botched notions. Candles, for one.
Three candles that illumine every darkness:
Truth, Nature, Knowledge.
— traditional Irish triad
February was and still is treated as the last month before the new year — which many cultures, including that of our ancestors, place at the beginning of spring not in the middle of winter. February is an odd month, a short month, a month short of days and days short of duration. A chrysalis month before spring brings rejuvenation. It has long been associated with the customs of anticipating the new year: cleaning, purification, ordering one’s business, and of course the licentiousness of liminal days, with playful fertility festivals occurring throughout the month.
One Roman new year tradition was to give candles as holiday gifts. A candle is the gift of light in the midst of the dark of the year. Candles are precious in cost and always have been. One gift of a candle from a master might be the only taper a poor slave family might see for the entire year.
As Europe drifted away from the Roman Empire and lost the thread in its traditions, the practical assessment of value to a candle as a thing that is of great utility and also costly to make became perhaps a bit more like superstition in the context of the rituals of the Christian church. The Roman Catholic faith incorporates many fragments and echoes into its bulk; candles are just one such. The pagan Roman tradition transformed into a veneration of candles generally that was particularly celebrated with the increasing light of this time of year.
There is a biblical precedent, though it’s a bit of a stretch. The story of the presentation of Jesus to the temple in Luke’s version contains a flicker that becomes the flame. A rabbi, Simeon, sees the child in Mary’s arms and is enraptured. He declares that this infant will be a light to all the world (Luke placed emphasis on this point: a light not just to Jews, but to all the world). From this came the association of light with the Presentation festival, set to February 2nd mostly due the vagaries of Jewish law.
This theme of light in darkness was pounced upon by those who see very little light all winter. In northern Europe, candles became so central to the rite that the focus changed from the presentation of an infant in a Jewish temple to a celebration of Jesus as the light of the world. Even the name changed — to Candlemas. And this change happened fairly quickly. By the time that Bede was writing in the early 8th century, candles were objects of veneration in themselves and the festival was already being celebrated with candlelit processions. In the 11th century, parishioners were obliged to bring candles to Candlemas processions and then to pay to have the candles blessed. And for those who claim an older pagan pedigree to this candle carousal, Hutton clearly shows that the Christian festival has no linkages to ancient northern European practices except the date. Before Candlemas, there is no trail to a festival of candlelight among northern peoples.
Because why would they do that? Candles were and are expensive. Wax is rare, difficult to obtain, and burns down quickly. Most candles before the advent of petroleum-based paraffin were made of tallow which spits dangerous sparks and stinks like the burning flesh it is. Most people did not use candles at all because the cost was too dear and, more importantly, they did not need artificial light. They rose and slept with the sun, and furthermore candles are not that effective at making light for work. You can’t gather chicken eggs holding a candle. Candlelight is useless in the fields and forests. Candlelight is drowned in the firelight of hearth and forge. Candles are good for reading and other scholarly pastimes, which just didn’t and still don’t happen in the daily lives of most people. (And even then, how long can you read by candlelight without getting a massive eyestrain headache?)
So Candlemas is a Christian tradition celebrating not the light of spring but the light of their savior deity — though the enthusiastic adoption of the celebration is no doubt due to the seasonal resonance of the traditional date in northern lands. Candles are not magical things, though flame certainly is. This rite grew a focus on candles through a weaving of barely remembered Roman traditions with a few slips of religious text and, let’s be honest, a great love of pageantry and physical beauty. A candlelit procession to a church blazing with chandeliers and candelabra is mighty lovely eye-candy, a gorgeous counterpoint to the dull, grey days of late winter. Then just to confuse the custom and bemuse their descendants, the Reformation removed this central theme of candlelight from the celebration of Candlemas. Those of us trying to make sense of this ritual date are missing a good deal of the ritual information. The trail back to the origin of Candlemas is lost in the 16th century (along with a good many other things).
One should note that the Enlightenment is a direct descendant of the Reformation. The limiting, the dissecting and discarding, the darkening of our world has its roots in the purge of knowledge and information that Reformists believed too worldly and wondrous for transcendental sheep-souls. That this had the effect of creating more superstition and confusion, that it severed reason from reality, that it led to arrogance and ignorance is one of the cruelest ironies of Western history. (And don’t even get me started on that word.)
At Candlemas, cold in air and snow on grass;
if the sun then entice the bear from his den,
he turns thrice and goes back again.
— traditional apothegm from the Pyrenees region
Divination has long been associated with animal behavior, and predicting the weather — especially as it relates to the harvest — was the main preoccupation of divination. Cultures throughout Europe and the Middle East watched animals in early spring to try to glean information about the weather and the future of food. Those animals that live underground were especially thought to possess hidden chthonic knowledge of the future.
The most commonly watched animal was the snake. The snake is a constant companion of the goddess in ancient sculpture. The serpent’s habit of casting off its skin and emerging as a new being is a powerful metaphor for the renewal of spring. The snake represents occult knowledge, often forbidden knowledge. The sibyls were associated with snakes; pythoness means soothsayer; the Minoans worshipped a snake goddess. And of course there was that slippery slitherer in the tree of knowledge. When St Patrick claimed that he cast the snakes out of Ireland, he may have been speaking in allegory about driving out those who practiced weather divination.
But eventually, perhaps under the influence of the new religion that demonized both snakes and sibyls, snake-watching fell out of favor and hibernating mammals took over. One German practice was to watch for the badger to come from hibernation. When Germans moved to the United States they found that badgers are not plentiful in North America east of the Appalachians. Furthermore, the North American badger does not hibernate; it cycles through periods of prolonged sleep and then activity throughout the winter. This tends to lead to false predictions. So the immigrants shifted their attention to a true hibernating animal that is plentiful in the eastern states — the groundhog.
The groundhog is an American rodent not found in Europe. His European equivalent is the hedgehog. (Significantly, Brigid had a hedgehog familiar, and its behavior indicated the timing of plowing.) On the face of it, the groundhog sure seems to be a magical beast. Groundhogs live where winter is harsh, yet they manage to sleep through the onslaught blissfully curled up in their burrows, surviving purely on body fat. The laziest of all rodents, the groundhog expends little energy even when active. Groundhogs seldom waddle more than a hundred meters from their burrows which are spartan affairs compared to the elaborate tunnels and large food stores of squirrels and prairie dogs. By the end of summer, the groundhog is obese.
In late September, the groundhog goes to ground, spending the next five months or more in a state of profound torpor. Heartbeats slow from 200 to 5 beats per minute. Internal body temperature hovers around 60°F. It is very difficult to wake a groundhog. My experience is that you could detonate a bomb over their burrows and they’d sleep on placidly. The one thing that will rouse them is a sudden drop in temperature. Remove the hog from the burrow and he will shiver awake. Groundhog Day is probably deeply unpleasant for the groundhog. Because groundhogs do need to be woken at this time of year; they don’t come out of the burrow in early February of their own free will. That’s all down to human fancy.
The story goes that in 1898 a group of local businessmen in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, formed the Punxsutawney Ground Hog Club. Their ritual called for fancy-dressed Club members to fan out in the hills around Gobbler’s Knob, searching for occupied groundhog holes. The first one to spot a groundhog waved a white signal flag, presumably so as not to wake the slumbering rodent. The Club would then convene the Hibernating Governors to deliver the official weather report to the expectant crowds on the morning of 2 February. Much less romantically, today’s groundhog “hunt” is on a private estate where a pampered groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil lives in a faux log. Some recent Phil incarnations have even been stuffed animals.
The idea of watching the behavior of the groundhog for signs of spring was blended with a less fanciful measure of winter. Farmers in New England used this date — halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox — to judge their winter feed stores. Regardless of the weather, February 2nd is the middle of winter. Careful husbandry ensured that there would still be enough food in the pantry and byre to last through the second half of the season of dearth. The adage was “Groundhog day, half your hay”.
And this is where we cycle back to where we started this trip through February 2nd — down on the farm, worried about the arrival of spring. On the one hand, there needs to be enough food to feed livestock and family until the growing season begins again. On the other, winter-grown plants can’t break dormancy too soon or they will die. It’s a delicate balance and one that has left a record of obsession with time-keeping that is as long as civilization.
Many writers claim that our ancient ancestors would watch for bears coming out hibernation and would make predictions about the timing of spring based on ursine activity. There are two problems with this. First, bears don’t come out of hibernation this early in the year. These mostly plant-eaters break hibernation when day length is greater than 12 hours so there will be plants to eat. They are not interested in early spring. You wouldn’t be either if you’d been asleep and slowly starving for months, only to wake and find there is no food to fill your empty belly. The other problem with bear divination is that it’s sort of perilous to watch a bear. Unlike a large rodent, or even the badgers that were favored by the Germans, a bear is not easily gawped at. A hangry bear newly emerged from his winter den may decide to just kill you if you’re annoying him.
Perhaps bear observation was no more in depth that watching for them to reappear. However, there are many other less toothy hibernating beasts, and many of them come out of hibernation when spring has not yet started, when it’s still possible to make predictions. But there is a “bear” that comes out from winter hiding before spring weather arrives — a celestial one, the red-giant star Arcturus.
Hesiod tells us that spring in ancient Greece arrived about sixty days after the winter solstice and was heralded by the reappearance of Arcturus in the evening sky. Arcturus, a name that is translated from Greek as “Watcher of the Bear”, is in the constellation of Boötes, the Plowman. When this star rises in the east after sunset, spring has arrived.
Much like the heliacal rising of Sirius presaged the flooding of the Nile, the evening sighting of Arcturus meant that spring was imminent. It’s hard to tell the calendar date when you don’t have written calendars. Weather can change from year to year, but stars rise at the same time year in and year out without fail (relative to human lifespans, anyway). When the Bear comes forth, it is time for the Plowman.
And here is the core of vernal divination. This celestial clock mutated into tales of weather prognostication based on bears, then badgers, then groundhogs, then apparently stuffed toys consulted by tuxedoed Pennsylvania businessmen. There is a moral in there somewhere. But the prediction remains the same: If the groundhog sees his shadow, the harvest will be bad; if the weather is grey, the harvest might be good. Either way it’s about six more weeks until spring.
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. 2003. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Neal, Carl. Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials). 2015. Llewellyn Publications: Woodbury, Minnesota.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun.1996. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Ó’Duinn, Seán. The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint. 2005. The Columba Press: Blackrock, Co. Dublin.
© Elizabeth Anker 2021