If Candlemas be bright and clear there'll be two winters in the year. — traditional adage from Scotland
Of Candles and Divinatory Beasts
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.
Thunder in February; frost in May. — Welsh weather proverb
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 if they manage to escape frost damage, there won’t be insects to pollinate the flowers, so there still 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.
All the months of the year curse a sunny Februreer. — traditional quip from East Anglia
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 limit the “we” substantially). 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 call these things with their true names. 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 illuminate 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 possess 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. Luke’s version of the story of the presentation of Jesus to the temple 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 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.
Now, for those who claim an older pagan pedigree to this candle carnival, 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. 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. (Though, in fact, no snakes made it to the isle after the last period of glaciation…)
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 that 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 out of sheer annoyance.
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.
From the Book Cellar
I’ve always had a fondness for books on Groundhog Day, and apparently I’m not alone — there are dozens! Maybe more now, I don’t know. But my pile is big enough and I’m not looking. (The will is weak…) So here are some of my favorites.
Ten Grouchy Groundhogs by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook and illustrated in wacky cartoon style by Jay Johnson (2009, Scholastic Inc) encapsulates how we all feel in these waning days of winter. “Let me out, out, out!” (Only to crawl back into the burrow when we find it’s still cold…) Do not skip the jacket quotes at the end…
Go to Sleep, Groundhog! by Judy Cox and illustrated by Paul Meisel (2004, Holiday House) is the perfect bedtime story for the little ones who just can’t get settled. Groundhog can’t fall asleep, so he gets to see all the wonders that he usually misses. And then he sees his shadow…
Gretchen Groundhog, It’s Your Day! by Abby Levine, illustrated by Nancy Cote (1998, Albert Whitman & Co) is a bit off in many particulars. But it’s a fun tale of learning to face your fears, of which being stared at in public is at the top of the list for most of us.
On the other hand, Groundhog Day! by Gail Gibbons (2007, Holiday House) is surprisingly accurate history, biology and folklore — all written at a first grade reading level. Gibbons has created many books on all sorts of everything (we rather suspect “she” is a committee). They are all fantastic!
The Groundhog Day Book of Facts and Fun by Wendie Old and illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye (2004, Albert Whitman & Co) was one we used in the bookstore every year. Fun projects, engaging stories, goofy puns, and all you ever wanted to know about the woodchuck (and more). My craft-time leader loved it! (He was sort of inclined toward goofiness though…)
Groundhog Weather School by Joan Holub and illustrated by Kristin Sorra (2009, Puffin Books) packs in even more information, including history on weather forecasting (human style) and how to build a burrow (presumably hog…). There’s even a foreign exchange student. But the conclusion is that it’s really hard to predict the weather!
Punxsutawney Phyllis by Susanna Leonard Hill, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler (2005, Holiday House) is a little clunky, but definitely proves that there are no jobs a girl can’t do — including being Phil. Interestingly, the actual Punxsutawney Phil is more often a female, males being rather crotchety this time of year since they’re getting ready for mating season and all the territory-guarding that implies.
Substitute Groundhog by Pat Miller and illustrated by Kathi Embler (2006, Holiday House) tells of Groundhog’s search for a replacement when he catches the inevitable winter flu. Then he and his substitute get on a bus and go in search of spring — in Texas.
One book I am still waiting on — and may have to write myself — is the story of Prairie Dog Day. Woodchucks being rather scant out West, Mayor Martin Chavez and others dedicated 2 February to the ubiquitous, if borderline endangered, prairie dog. Instead of Phil, Westerners watch for Pete who almost always sees his shadow — February being a month of high pressure and clear blue skies. He is invariably wrong on the start of spring. It was never six weeks away. In fact, I could plant peas on Prairie Dog Day and have spring crops pretty much done by the vernal equinox. Just in time for the season of Wind… in which nothing grows… except discomfort.
On a Personal Divinatory Note…
Much written about nature-based religions is really about divination, about predicting the future and using that foreknowledge for human benefit. I don’t much like this aspect of pagan practice, as you can imagine. But I do practice trying to see what will come. I like being prepared. Also, looking forward is not magick in the sense that is mysterious and only practicable by special people. It is magic in the sense that is it seeking wisdom. It is the path of the Magi, who were all about being prepared for whatever might come.
Divination is not looking for symbols that indicate some human meaning, or it’s not only that anyway, though that is what features in most writing on the subject. It is paying attention to actual reality and predicting what real circumstances might flow from what is happening right now. For example, it’s not looking at the shapes of flight formations of birds, however beautiful and mysterious their dances may be. It’s looking at what birds are up there. It’s looking at species, numbers, apparent condition. It is looking at where they are going and how they are going about their business. A flight of seabirds of all sorts heading inland at high speed is a pretty good indication that there is bad weather approaching. Similarly, a cardinal in his bright red plumage indicates that breeding season has begun, but if you also see the duller brown females, then it hasn’t begun in earnest. If they’re still flitting about, then the ladies don’t think much of the weather prospects and have not settled down to create a new generation. This is not magic-with-a-k. It is mundane observation and experience. And, for what it’s worth, I trust the female cardinals to predict the onset of spring weather far more than woodchucks or weathermen. They’re usually right, because the ones that aren’t don’t produce babies.
So I try to divine things. Sometimes this is, in fact, all in my head. Predicting involves sorting through all the observations and experiences to tease out connections and trends from piles of raw data. It is data processing, something the human brain excels at. This is where Western meditation and many other forms of focused thought are useful. (Eastern meditation is not as helpful, being that the goal is to not think at all…) I particularly like staring at flames and letting everything else fall away. I sometimes set myself a goal or a subject. But more often I don’t consciously choose my thoughts and, instead, let whatever has been namelessly swimming around in there rise to the surface where I can give it a good look-see. I also use gentle actions that require time and moderate physical work but very little thought — dishwashing and showering are particularly productive meditative activities. I suppose the connection there is that I am warm, secure, comfortable and not bothered by what comes next because I have to do this thing. I am not taking time away from something more important and being bothered by that. (In my experience there is nothing more important than cleaning.) So my thoughts are free to ramble luxuriously. (Much poetry comes out of the kitchen and bathroom…)
Divination is exactly the point of all this considering how we should be and what are the best practices to get to that state of being. It is a consideration of the results of our present actions. It is considering where we are going and whether we want to be on that path and whether it is good to be on that path, whether we want it or not, and what other paths are open that might get us to something that is, in fact, good. This looking for hope in the future is divination.
But then, all futurism is divination. This we must be perfectly clear upon. All predictions of the time that has not yet come and does not yet exist is interpretative opinion. Some is more fact moderated, but it is still not yet fact. And our cultural and individual records of accurately predicting the factual future are really not that great. We wouldn’t be here, for one thing… So we might as well call it by its woo-woo name — divination. That, at least, feels less solid and inevitable and necessary. We are more encouraged to confirm the observed facts and analyze the deductions and inductions that went into the prediction. We are more likely to test divination for truth than we are a book of futurism “science” written by some “expert”.
And we truly need to fact-test the ideas about the future that are handed down to us from experts through various forms of media. We need to establish in our own minds the veracity — the consistency and faithfulness to reality — of any description of the time that has not yet been and especially any actions we might now take to get to that imagined time. Because almost nothing that is being proposed to ameliorate biophysical breakdown through market-based mechanisms will, in fact, do that. Anybody can sit down, dispassionately and objectively look at where we are, look at where we need to be (a less broken world that will sustainably support life, however you define that), look at the tools and systems proposed to get us there, and conclude that this is not going to happen. (It may, however, make some wealthy and privileged people even more wealthy and privileged in the short term… which is probably the actual goal in nearly all these proposals.)
(Here is a thing that just hit me… note that veracity is based on the same root as green, which is itself a metaphor for life… Ergo, truth, in our language, is both alive — mutable, based on experience — and is predicated on living — sustainably remaining embodied. There isn’t a truth that does not support life. Think on that for a bit.)
In any case, I am embarked on a long project of divination. I am looking at the actual present world, looking at actual causes and effects, and reasoning out a logical future world. I am trying to figure out what we can do now to effect a future that will support life — and truth… This is a process, not a single delimited act. My ideas change as I take in more information and incorporate it into the data stored in my head (or, in these post-menopausal days, recorded in all these scribbles).
Sometimes I have to scrap whole chunks of thought. For example, based on information about materials sourcing, transport, useful lifetimes, and waste processing, I no longer believe that solar electricity is a necessary tool to getting us to a viable future. I’m not even sure it’s helpful. On balance it seems to cause more harm than benefit. This is my definition of bad. So though I once had a goal of throwing photovoltaic panels on all surfaces, I now think that I’ll just scrap that. I may still construct solar heating systems if I have the extra resources and can come up with something that works reliably in the low-light climate of Vermont. But if there are solar electricity panels at all they will be small, designated to one task (like charging my car), short-term (I won’t have a car in the future), and most particularly not backed-up by batteries. (The breaking point on PV panels was when I started really looking at intermittency and storage… there’s not been a sunny day here in Vermont since early December… And I do NOT want a vat of toxic chemicals in my basement… so I imagine nobody else wants that dumped on them when it inevitably degrades.)
And this scrapping is problematic… because it shows the inconsistencies. It shows the uncertainties. It shows that we could be wrong. In fact, are wrong. That is terrifying and immobilizing. How can we motivate ourselves to make changes when we do not feel certain that those changes are going to do any good for anybody? In fact, we are quite certain that many of the changes proposed to us from above are going to be very bad — for us and everybody else. And these are the experts! The futurists! The ones who can see the future!
Well, just because they can see it, that doesn’t mean they care. They may well know that what they are proposing will cause harm — to others. How can they not know if even I can see it! However, what they are proposing will very likely benefit themselves. Probably only themselves — which is the chief benefit, all the good accrues to them, increasing their relative wealth and status. There may not even be anything but harmful effects for their own children. Maybe not even themselves at a future time, unless they are truly old and not going to be around for all the effects of their causes. (Which is mostly true of the Davos set…)
So, I am concerned. I can see the future also. It is not good. It will hurt. Me and most everybody else. But even I have difficulty figuring out what I can do to avoid that hurt. And it is very hard to change anything when you aren’t certain. Just the process of deciding what is best takes time away from time that could be spent making changes.
I can see a very nebulous spring out there. One that I probably won’t get to live in. But I’m stuck here in the winter, using up all my energy and resources trying to make the best of that. How do I pull up even more energy and resources to get myself on the path to spring?
Maybe by not trying so hard to divine it out… maybe by just doing small bits of factual good wherever I can… maybe by following the female cardinals…
©Elizabeth Anker 2023
2 thoughts on “The Daily: 2 February 2023”
Since Phil did not see his shadow today, I am taking comfort in knowing that he is right only about 39% of the time, I am choosing to believe that tomorrow’s forecast of -14 with even colder windchill will be the last truly arctic day this winter since the weekend is supposed to warm up to 30.
We’ve decided to not do solar panels either, though we are considering a small solar generator we can run a space heater or blender or lamp on if we need to. Otherwise we are thinking about how to “camp” in our house. I gave up trying to figure out how to plan for everything last year because it was making me continually anxious. I feel much better planning for camping because it is familiar and I know how to navigate that.
“Maybe by not trying so hard to divine it out… maybe by just doing small bits of factual good wherever I can… maybe by following the female cardinals…”
Yup, that’s the way I’m feeling these days. Also learning practical skills is helping me feel good. I am signed up for a beginner drop spindle class. Planning on weaving class in the summer. I’d really like to learn basket weaving sometime. Planning on slowly creating a dye garden and learning places to forage food and other useful things. It doesn’t seem like much, but it feels like matters.
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Thanks for the list of groundhog books. I’m a public librarian and need some of these to add to our children’s collection. I always love your posts and learn so much from them! Happy Candlemas Day!
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