MONDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Groundhog Day may have evolved from Imbolc, an ancient pagan festival, but furry woodland creatures have little to do with the Christian feast that falls one day later: It’s the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known better as Candlemas. Be sure to put away those last ornaments and take down your tree, too—leaving any Christmas decorations lingering after Candlemas is, per old tradition, inauspicious!
For Pagans, the first days of February bring new beginnings, too: the Gaelic festival of Imbolc marks the start of spring.
CANDLEMAS: CREPES, CANDLES AND TAMALES
In European countries, Christ’s crèche is put away on Candlemas Eve (February 1), and across the Church, attention shifts to the approaching Passion. The feast of Candlemas focuses on the Gospel of Luke, which describes Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. Both Eastern and Western Christians recognize this event. According to the gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met a man named Simeon while at the Temple, who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and as the fulfillment of a prophesy. A woman at the Temple, named Anna, offered similar praise for Jesus. However, Simeon warned that Mary’s heart would someday be “pierced with a sword,” as the future held tragic events for her young son.
The Feast of the Presentation ranks as one of the oldest feasts in the Church, with records of sermons dating back to the 4th century. Aside from the blessing of candles, Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In France, delicate crepes are eaten after 8 p.m.; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served, often at a party thrown by the person who found the baby Jesus trinket in an Epiphany King Cake.
IMBOLC: A SPRING CUSTOM FOR BRIGHID
On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere usher in February with the centuries-old Gaelic festival of Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, marking the beginning of spring and the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated.) Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.
In the belly: The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods symbolize new beginnings.
Legend has it that on this day, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring and snakes and badgers begin emerging from the earth to test the weather (thus, the beginning of modern Groundhog Day traditions.)
In Wicca, Imbolc is a women’s festival in honor of Brighid.
GROUNDHOG DAY: FORECASTING AND PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL
On February 2, we all ask: Will the groundhog see his shadow?
What started as an ancient Pagan festival has slowly morphed into a national phenomenon in the United States. Groundhog Day, spurred by German immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries who brought groundhog traditions with them, gave birth to “Punxsutawney Phil,” and the array of groundhog-related events that fill lodges and streets in Pennsylvania in the first days of February each year. Annually, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for Groundhog Day, where “Phil” is regarded as the “one and only” weather predictor for the day.
Tradition tells that if a groundhog sees his shadow in sunlight, he will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter; if he sees no shadow, he will emerge, and an early spring is in the forecast.