We’re Halfway There. Turn the Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.” *

Today is the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Yes, it is Groundhog Day and I have written about that here before. But how many different ways can you explain the origin of our tradition of expecting an animal to predict the coming weather? I can always explain to people my love of the film Groundhog Day, but I’ve done that here too.

Today I’ll just write about the winter midpoint, also known as a cross-quarter day. No matter what that groundhog (or a badger, as the original German tradition had it) or any animal does when he pokes his head out from hibernation today, be optimistic. We are halfway through winter.

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans. It can be considered to have either four or eight festivals. Some people celebrate the four solstices and equinoxes, which are known as the “quarter days.” Some also celebrate the four midpoints between, such as today, which are known as the “cross-quarter days.”

Festivals celebrating the cycle of the seasons were far more important to people in the past. You might also hear Wiccans refer to these festivals as sabbats, a term from the Middle Ages. It was probably taken partially from the Jewish Shabbat.

Today is Imbolc on the wheel, the first cross-quarter day. It is supposed to be a time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life.

In Ancient Rome, this was a shepherd’s holiday. Among Celts, this day was associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs. Celtic pagans dedicated this day to the goddess Brigid.

The Winter Solstice was the shortest day of the year with the fewest sunlit hours. But after that, the Sun started its return journey back toward us in the Northern Hemisphere. You didn’t notice that move back in December, but after today you can actually see and feel this gradual reappearance of the light.

Maybe you will pick up a hint of the coming of spring. Look for the first tiny buds. Some snowdrops will push their fragile blooms above the frosty soil or even through the snow.

Yes, hibernating animals are stirring in their dens and underground nests. They may even go out at night and grab a meal and then return to their winter tunnel.

If Groundhog Day seems silly, think of this as the Celtic Imbolc, or as the Chinese Li Chu’un, or the Christian Candlemas.

The Latin quote at the top of this essay is translated as a rhyme:
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
winter will have another flight.
If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.” 
In other words, good weather today is a bad omen. Bad weather is a good sign. Reminds me of that groundhog. He sees his shadow if it is a sunny day, but that means more winter, though it would seem to indicate spring.

So, don’t be concerned with midwinter divinatory practices. Spring is six weeks away. Some of those days to come will be wintery; some will be springlike.  It’s okay to hibernate for another six weeks and feel like the universe has decided that’s the way it should be.

* That quote at the top of this post is open to greater interpretation as far as the weather ahead. It literally translates as: “If the sun shines with Mary the mother of purifying, after the feast of ice will be greater than it was before.”

I Am Celebrating Everything

I don’t know what to celebrate today and tomorrow.

The lunar calendar is a calendar based upon the monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases (synodic months), rather than the solar calendars that most Westerners are familiar with and use daily. The Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar and is the most common calendar system, originally evolved out of a lunar calendar system.

year of tigerToday, that lunar calendar makes this the New Year that is most known as the “Chinese New Year.” This year is the Year of the Tiger. I made the mistake last year of ordering Chinese takeout on this day. Wow, was that a long, long wait for delivery!

But the Lunar New Year is celebrated by all those who follow the lunisolar calendar, including countries such as China, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Mongolia and Indonesia, as well as diaspora communities all over the world. Similarly, Tibet, Thailand, India and other South and Southeast Asian cultures celebrate the new year based on local calendars.

Imbolc and BrigidBut I could celebrate the ancient Imbolc, a word  that comes from the Old Irish imbolg, which means “in the belly.” That needs some explanation.

It probably comes from early February being the time when ewes became pregnant and will produce spring lambs.

candles Christians took this pagan holiday and repurposed it as tomorrow’s Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy). Imbolc became associated with Saint Brigid who was thought to bring the healing power of the Sun back to the world.

But Candlemas is meant to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth. Any church ceremony will include bringing candles (the return of light) and Brigid’s crosses to church to be blessed.

Of course, tomorrow Groundhog Day takes most of the attention in America. What can I say about that silly holiday that has some origins in nature that I haven’t already written about on this site?


The Second of February


The second day of February is a busy day for holidays and observances.

I feel bad for all the confused and trapped groundhogs today. We humans can be so foolish sometimes. Perhaps, some creatures in the wild did venture out today to see what was happening in the world. Maybe some of them saw the sun, a shadow, or a pile of snow. I’m thinking that either way they went back in their den because they know it’s not spring. That’s for sure. Spring is 46 days away in my hemisphere no matter what happened to critters today.

Here’s an optimistic take on today: this is a cross-quarter day – Imbolc – which marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. We’re halfway to spring. Winter is half over.

I planted snowdrops a few years ago and I’m sure they are still there – under about two feet of snow, which is a kind of blanket. They are being patient and waiting for the sun ( as Jim Morrison once wrote and sang).

I also lit a candle today because it’s Candlemas. The candle is unconsecrated but that’s okay. According to weather lore, the snow today means some spring-like days are ahead in the next six weeks.

Go back to your dens. Wear a mask (or two) if you go out. Better days are coming.

snow candle

Spring Will Come

There is snow on the ground in Paradelle, and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.


There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.

Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So, it offers the elements of fire and birth.

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.

Groundhogs, Candles, Snowdrops and Thoughts About Spring

Candlemas Bells, also known as Snowdrops

I pay attention to when plants in my area begin to show signs of spring. I like having snowdrops (AKA Candlemas Bells) in the garden and around the house. They are bulb plants that you should plant closely together to create a snowy blanket of Galanthus nivalis.

I can’t say that they are very good at predicting the end of winter or coming of spring because, as the “snow” in their name suggests, they are just early bloomers. Sometimes they bloom in February and they may not even wait for the snow to melt before emerging. But, they are a cheering sight, even if it doesn’t mean the cold weather is gone.

The pile of snow in Paradelle today is higher this morning than from the blizzard that went north last week, and that immediately puts me in the mood to watch Groundhog Day again.

I have watched it plenty of times already, but it is kind of the perfect film to watch over and over, and especially on this Groundhog Day.

I have written about it in more detail (see The Zen of Groundhog Day) but it’s a film that has a lot more to it than just being a funny Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy. A web search on the film will turn references to philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and certainly some of that was intentional.

Harold Ramis (director & co-writer) said that he got mail from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and they all find meaning in the film, use it in sermons, talks and classes. But you don’t need to see it as a version of the Buddhist cycle of continual rebirth. It is a tale that starts out as cynical-funny and ends up sweet-funny.

But you have at least four things you might celebrate today, February 2nd. The one that gets the most media attention is Groundhog Day, but there are some ways to connect all of them.

Saint Brigid’s cross

This is the ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth.

Yesterday was Saint Brigid’s feast day.

On this day, she brought the healing power of the sun back to the world. See a connection to our modern Groundhog Day?

Imbolc comes from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”  probably because it was the time when ewes became pregnant to deliver spring lambs.


Like many “pagan” holidays, February 2 became a Christian holiday. Candlemas Day marks the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after Christmas. People brought candles to church to be blessed and for a time some also brought their Brigid’s crosses too. The fire element is important to the pagan and the Christian traditions. One tradition says was that Saint Brigid put a ring a lighted candles on her head and led the Virgin Mary into the temple in Jerusalem. Besides Candlemas, the day is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and the Meeting of the Lord. Some of the same traditions are held in Italy, where it is called Candelora.

The ancients paid careful attention to the movement of the Sun and Moon and today is also “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. That means it falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox. It would have been a day to consider that winter was halfway over and spring was at least in sight and in your thoughts. Observers of nature could also find evidence of this.

Though animals pay no attention to our calendars (Unless we force them to come out in this day!), this was a time when in some parts of Europe and America that some animals might emerge from their winter dens.

Quite logically, if an animal emerged and found a blizzard or bitter cold, they were likely to head back in and wait out winter for a few more (maybe 6?) weeks. Humans viewed this behavior as an omen and believed that the animals had some better sense of what was to come in the weather.  In some mix of Imbolc, Saint Brigid, Candlemas and the cross-quarter, today became the day to pay particular attention to the behavior of animals (badgers in German tradition and bears in France) on this day to see if they emerged or returned to their dens.

I like to read about weather lore and Candlemas (or whatever you want to call this day) has long been connected to predicting the end of winter and start of spring.

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.

German immigrants in Pennsylvania didn’t find many badgers, but there were a lot of groundhogs and so we have Groundhog Day. The celebration goes back to the mid-1800s. It has become ridiculously commercialized (which the film pokes fun at) but the idea that if the groundhog sees its shadow and goes back in, it is another six weeks of winter has roots in traditions and observations from our past.

For 2015, Phil the groundhog in Pennsylvania saw his shadow. Big surprise on this snowy day: spring is still a month and a half away.

The Zen of Groundhog Day

I watch this film at least once a year. I’m sure there are people who think of this film – seen or unseen – as “just another Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy.” I really believe it is far more profound than you would think at a glance. I don’t know that the filmmakers’ intended all of that, but it’s there.

A. O. Scott in The NY Times did a re-review of this existential comedy this past week (watch his video review) and that was enough to send me to the shelf this weekend to watch Groundhog Day again.

I am not crazy in my belief that’s there’s more here than meets the viewing eye. Do a search on “Groundhog Day” and add something like philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, etc. and you’ll get plenty of hits of others who feel the same way.

Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) has said that he gets mail from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and they all find meaning in the film , and use it in sermons, talks and classes. In Buddhism classes, it is often used to illustrate the cycle of continual rebirth.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s some background: Bill Murray plays a self-centered, cranky TV meteorologist named Phil who gets sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He is joined by his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). He does a going-through-the-motions report. When they try to drive back to Pittsburgh, they are stopped by a blizzard (which he had predicted would miss the area) that shuts down the highways and they are forced to stay in town an extra day.

Phil wakes up at 6 AM and discovers that it is February 2 all over again. The day runs the same as it did before, but no one else seems to be aware of the time loop. And it happens again the next time he wakes up – and the next time and so on (38 times by my count).

He realizes that he can use this to his advantage and begins to learn more about the townsfolk. He ‘s hardly noble. He seduces women, steals money, drives drunk and tries to put the moves on Rita (that last one fails).

But this power he has eventually bores and depresses him. He tries to break the cycle and files mean TV reports, abuses residents, kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog. Finally, he attempts suicide, but still ends up waking up to the clock radio playing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” (Give a listen.)

Each time I re-watch the film, I think about another aspect of it. I keep thinking that some day I am going to teach this film in a course.

One scene has Phil dead in the morgue. Rita and Larry are there to identify his body. Is any of these retakes on the day affecting the others?  They don’t seem to remember the alternates takes, but…

A few years ago, I watched it and it led me to explore other movies and writings that play with time loops. There are a lot of them.

One day Phil is in the bowling alley. He asks two guys drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

Are some of us leading a kind of Groundhog Day existence for real?

Other writers online have gotten far more serious in their explorations of the film than me.

This is from thesacredpage.com

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked
and from groundhogdaythemovie.com comes some discussions about the film like this:

I asked what the Reb thought was the turning point in the film. After watching it for the ninth or tenth time specifically to find where the third act begins, I concluded that it begins 4/5 of the way into the 103 minute film, at about the 80 minute mark. Phil is throwing cards into the hat, and Rita points out that the eternally repeating day doesn’t have to be a curse.

Reb Anderson disagreed. He thought the turning point came later, when Phil found he was unable to save the old man’s life. Only here, he said, did Phil realize “It’s not me, it is the universe, I am just the vessel.”

Why did the writers use February 2, Groundhog Day, as the setting? I think because it’s such a nothing “holiday.” It has no religious connections, no cards, no gifts and very little tradition. And yet, it’s not just an ordinary day. The first time I saw the film (wow, almost 17 years ago), I thought that he would relive the day for 6 more weeks of winter. Later, I thought about the day and decided there was something about the end of winter, spring and rebirth going on in the story.

In this piece from 2003, the author suggests that we consider the film as a tale of self-improvement which:
“…emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence. As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”
Want to have a viewing group (which I would prefer to a reading group these days) and show the film?  Check out the discussion questions on this philosophy site. http://www.philfilms.utm.edu/1/groundhog.htm

The original idea for the story was supposed to have come from the book The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom) by Friedrich Nietzsche. In that book, Nietzsche gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again.

The writer of the original script, Danny Rubin, said that one of the inspirational moments in the creation of the story came after reading Interview With the Vampire which got him thinking about what it would be like to live forever. Rubin and Ramis have both said that they avoided exploring the really dark side of Phil’s time looping in which he could done some horrible things without consequence, like murder.

And, as a capper to this love letter to the film, I have to add that the film is also funny and sweet. Funny is no surprise. Murray and Ramis teamed up for the film Stripes which is a great, silly comedy that I also love, and that has no philosophy or religious themes at all.

The sweetness is all Hollywood. Phil does learn lessons. He befriends many of the townsfolk that he had mocked. He uses his knowledge to try to save lives and help people. And he finally knows how to treat Rita. His final TV report is a beauty that puts everyone in tears. The  next morning he wakes and finds the circle broken.

When the clock clicks over to 6 AM for you in the morning, what kind of day are you planning to make it?