Light and Shadow

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESToday is Candlemas and, in the northern hemisphere, we should be over the worst of the winter. At least in terms of unacceptable day length, there could still be plenty of cold weather ahead. Today we are half way between the solstice and the equinox. All the candles that will be used in services throughout the year are brought into church to be blessed at Candlemas. It also commemorates two events. The presentation of the infant Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem and the ritual purification of Mary forty days after giving birth. Women were considered unclean for forty days after giving birth to a son. If Jesus had been a girl, she would have been unclean for sixty days.

Like most Christian festivals, it’s roots are much older. In Ancient Rome, February 2nd was commemorated as the day that Pluto, the god of the underworld carried away Proserpene (in Greek, Persephone). Her mother Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her female attendants searched everywhere for her with torches and candles. When she was found in his kingdom, Pluto agreed to let her return to her earthly home, but first he made her eat six pomegranate seeds. Anyone who ate the food of the dead, could not return to the land of the living in any permanent way, 02 02 frederic leighton the return of perspephone (1891)so Proserpene could return to her mother for six months of every year, the other six months she must spend in the underworld with Pluto. This is clearly a myth about the changing seasons. In Spring, Ceres welcomes her daughter and everything begins to grow. But when she has to leave again everything dies and we have Winter. In Rome, the event was celebrated annually with a procession of torches and candles. Also, in this month, they had a festival called Februa, after which this month is named. They carried candles to all parts of the city in a ritual act of purification. So it’s easy to see how the stories of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary fitted in well with an existing tradition. Whether you are welcoming Jesus as the Light of the World, or searching for the returning spring; celebrating the purification of Mary, or driving out some lingering spirits left over from the old year, a candle or two wouldn’t go amiss.

There is also a pretty widespread superstition connected with Candlemas. The weather on that day is supposed to predict how long the winter will last. If the weather is fine, it means that winter is far from over and the crops that year will be bad. If it snows and the weather is terrible, it means an early spring. Robert Chambers gave us a lovely Scottish rhyme about it when wrote about Candlemas in his ‘Book of Days’ in 1864:

If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemass day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gave at Yule.’

He tells us that this belief existed throughout Europe and in Germany, on February 2nd, a shepherd would rather see a wolf in his stable than the sunshine. He also says that the Germans believed that the badger will look out of his sett on Candlemas Day. If it is snowing, he will come out and go hunting. But if the sun is shining, he will go inside and go back to sleep because he knows winter isn’t over. This same superstition crossed the Atlantic with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Only they don’t use the badger to foretell the weather. They have a groundhog. Today is also Groundhog Day. There are several weather 02 02 groundhogpredicting groundhogs in the United States and Canada. The most famous is probably Punxsutawney Phil. With great ceremony, he will emerge from his temporary home on Gobbler’s Knob, just outside the town of Punxsutawney. He will be attended by several gentleman in top hats. If Phil sees his shadow, he will return to his hole and there will be six more weeks of winter. If Phil does not see his shadow, he has predicted an early spring. The Groundhog Club, who attend him tell us that Phil speaks his prediction in a language called ‘groundhogese’ that only the president of the club can understand. The president then interprets it for the rest of the world. They further insist that there has only ever been one Punxsutawney Phil and that the same animal has been making his predictions since 1886.

In 2013, a man from Ohio issued an indictment against Phil when he wrongly predicted an early spring. He called for the death penalty. But no such indictment was issued against Ohio’s own prediction groundhog Buckeye Chuck, who also failed to see his shadow. Punxsutawaney Phil doesn’t always get it right. Probably he gets it right less than half of the time. But then, he does spend the rest of the year living in a library, so maybe he’s a bit out of touch.

Thomas Browne mentions the weather-lore prediction as well in his book ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ first published in 1646. He says: “…there is a general tradition in most parts of Europe, that inferreth the coldness of the succeeding winter from the shining of the sun on Candlemas-day”. It is a large and sprawling work with no index, so I haven’t been able to find what else he had to say about it. But as the book is alternately titled ‘Vulgar Errors’, I presume he thought it was all nonsense too.


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