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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 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 was 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.

ewe and lambs
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 piece is a little rhyme translated as “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.

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 probably open to interpretation as far as the weather ahead. It translate as: “If the sun shines with Mary the mother of purifying,
after the feast of ice will be greater than it was before.”

snowdrops

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.

candles

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.

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?

candles

Robert Herrick’s poem is for the Eve of Candlemas. Candlemas was marked on February 2nd as the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were removed from people’s homes. This was also a time that people brought their candles to church to be blessed. In the Catholic Church, it is the celebration of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation in the Temple of Jesus.

CEREMONIES FOR CANDLEMAS EVE
by Robert Herrick

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter’s eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

In the traditions and superstitions of an earlier time, it was said that leaving any traces of berries, holly and other Christmas decorations would bring death among the congregation before another year is out. Harsh stuff.  And another belief was that anyone who hears funeral bells tolling from a church on Candlemas will soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative. Each toll of the bell represents a day that will pass before the unfortunate news is learned.

In Scotland and northern England, Candlemas was one of the traditional quarter “term days” when quarterly rents were due for payment, as well as the day or term for various other business transactions, including the hiring of servants. In England, that tradition existed into the 18th century and in Scotland didn’t change until a law was passed in 1991.

Saint Brigid’s cross

Besides being Candlemas Eve, today is also Saint Brigid’s Day celebrated by some in Ireland. Whether Brigid was a real person or if she was a goddess that Christianity took over may never be decided. Saint Brigid was known for her generosity. She gave away her belongings, and God always restored them. Though she was stationed at a monastery of men and women in Kildare, she traveled the island to give aid.

When people brought their candles to church to be blessed, some also brought their Brigid’s crosses too. The fire element is also in the tradition that Saint Brigid put a ring a lighted candles on her head and led the Virgin Mary into the temple in Jerusalem.

The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, February 2nd, celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus.  Besides Candlemas, it is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and the Meeting of the Lord.

snowdrops

Candlemas Bells, also known as Snowdrops

Though it is primarily a religious holiday, it also has ancient  traditions and it is sometimes seen as the first sign of spring.

Adding to our weather lore, it was believed in the United Kingdom that good weather at Candlemas is taken to indicate that some severe winter weather is still to come.

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.

This is similar to the Groundhog Day tradition in the United States.

It was also believed that bears and wolves emerge from hibernation on this day to check the weather. If they choose to return to their lairs on this day, it is interpreted as meaning severe weather will continue for at least another forty days.

Some of the same traditions are held in Italy, where it is called Candelora.

Although I am a much bigger fan of the film Groundhog Day than the celebration of Groundhog Day, today is that day. Today is also notably observed in three other ways, so here are a few thoughts.

Today is when, if the groundhog sees its shadow as it comes out of its den, we have six weeks of winter to go. If the day is cloudy and the groundhog sees no shadow, it takes it as a sign of coming spring and stays above ground. Why a cloudy day would signal an early spring and a sunny day would mean more winter has never made any sense to me.

Native Americans and eventually the Colonists also knew that the behavior of animals (and insects) could predict the weather and perhaps even the coming and going of seasons.

PhilThere is an old tradition in European countries of watching animals to see how they behave on this day. Badgers were particularly important to watch and if  they returned to their dens, it meant that there was still a long winter ahead. There was no discussion of cloudy days, sunny days or shadows. When German immigrants to Pennsylvania found a shortage of badgers but an abundance of groundhogs, the observance became Groundhog Day.

Of course, in the ancient traditions the animals left their dens on their own. Puxatony Phil doesn’t have that freedom today.

The new tradition goes back to 1841, recorded in the diary of a storekeeper in Morgantown, Pennsylvania who wrote: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks’ nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

That reference to Candlemas points to how these two holidays have been connected.

One old English saying is that:

If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
But if Candlemas day bring clouds and rain,
Winter is gone and won’t come again.

ImbolcBut February 2nd is also a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. That means that it falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

And today is also the time of the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc, in honor of Brigit, the goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. Brigit brings the healing power of the sun back to the world on Imbolc, a day that carries the first promise of spring. Imbolc comes from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly,” because this is the time when ewes became pregnant to deliver spring lambs.

As with other ancient and Pagan holidays, like Easter, Christians took over the Celtic celebration and made February 2nd into Candlemas Day to mark the presentation of Jesus at the Temple exactly 40 days after Christmas.

Saint Brigid’s cross

Today you can celebrate three holidays that are connected.  Today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. That means it falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

This is the ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc. It honored Brigit, goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. This was the day that she brought the healing power of the sun back to the world. I hope that my Paradelle neighborhood sees the first promise of spring today because winter has been pretty brutal so far.

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

February 2 became a Christian holiday called Candlemas Day which marked the presentation of Jesus at the Temple 40 days after Christmas and is marked by the blessing of candles.

February 1st is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

Badger emerging from den

It is also a day marked by the emergence of some animals from their winter dens. These were viewed as omens that would predict the season ahead. In some European countries, watching the behavior of animals (badgers in particular) on this day to see if they emerged or returned to their dens predicted the season. It was believed that animals had a far more acute sense of the weather. Many people still believe that. If that badger emerged but decided to return to its den, it meant that there was still a long winter ahead.

If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
But if Candlemas day bring clouds and rain,
Winter is gone and won’t come again.

Of course, Americans are probably more familiar of the holiday created by German immigrants in Pennsylvania. They didn’t find many badgers in Pennsylvania but there were a lot of groundhogs.

Groundhog Day goes back to the mid-1800s. Though today it has become highly commercialized, the original idea was to continue the Candlemas day tradition of watching a denning animal emerge from its winter quarters. If  it sees its shadow and goes back in, it is another six weeks of winter rest. For much of the U.S., there will be at least another 6 weeks of winter after today! If the animal emerges on a cloudy day, the thought is that it will remain out and the remaining winter weather will be moderate.

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