Groundhog Day, Candlemas and Imbolc: Festivals, shadows anticipate springtime

Groundhog coming out of hole with sun and shadow

Will the groundhog see his shadow this year? Photo courtesy of Pixabay

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1 and FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Revelers nationwide turn to a woodlands forecaster at sunrise this morning, out of tradition that a groundhog who sees his shadow in sunlight will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter—and one who sees no shadow will emerge, signaling an early spring. Today’s Groundhog Day may have evolved from the ancient pagan festival of Imbolc, a seasonal Celtic festival—during which the spotting of a badger or similar animal supposedly indicated a turn in weather. Centuries later, the Christian holiday of Candlemas was regarded as predicting a forecast, and today, Christians observe Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple) on February 2.


Many regions have their own groundhog forecast today, but nowhere is the humble groundhog more revered than in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where “Punxsutawney Phil” inspires a whole list of events. When German immigrants made their way to Pennsylvania, U.S., in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought their groundhog traditions with them—and thus, Punxsutawney Phil was born.

A 2018 Phil-inspired drink:  This year, a Pennsylvania distillery is releasing a rye whiskey in honor of Groundhog Day, called “Phil’s Shadow.” But quantities are limited, so scurry—er, hurry—to the region if you’re hoping for a taste of the special drink.

Today, Groundhog Lodges in Pennsylvania hold social events on Feb. 2, where Pennsylvania German dialect is the only language allowed; those who speak English pay a penalty in nickels, dimes and quarters. Annually, Punxsutawney, Pa, draws tens of thousands of visitors on Groundhog Day—a custom that began in 1887, when a local newspaper editor declared the city’s groundhog the “one and only” predictor.

A Pakistani view of Punxsutawney Phil: In this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a native Pakistani reflects on how Phil reminds her of her roots.

Stack of pancakes on white with honey drizzled on top

French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes on Candlemas will bring good luck. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel


The Gospel of Luke is traditionally the center of Candlemas celebrations, in which it is described that Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. 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, 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.

Did you know? In Serbia—an Orthodox Christian country—Feb. 2 brings The Meeting of the Lord, when it’s believed that a bear who sees his shadow will retreat and bring 40 more days of winter. (Note: Keep in mind that Serbia follows the Julian calendar, where Feb. 2 falls on the Gregorian Feb. 15.)

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—and the widespread and abundant use of candles, too—Candlemas brings an array of delicious foods and vibrant customs! In countries across Europe, sweet and savory crepes are made; in Mexico, piles of tamales are served. French tradition has it that successfully flipping a coin while making pancakes will surely bring good luck, and Candlemas Bells—early-blooming white flowers, also known as Snowdrops—are believed to purify any home they are brought into today. (Just don’t bring those Snowdrops inside before the feast of Candlemas, because that’s considered bad luck!)

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 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 eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings. On February 1, Wiccans and Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere mark Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, as 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.

Legend has it that on Imbolc, Brighid begins preparing for the renewal of spring. 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 / Imbolc: Can a shadow predict spring’s arrival?

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Will he—or won’t he?

That’s the question asked by thousands of spectators in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and millions more following the story digitally. Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Tradition holds that, if a groundhog emerging from his burrow sees his shadow, winter will last another six weeks; if the groundhog does not see his shadow, an early spring is in store. Though much of the United States will be covered in snow on Groundhog Day 2015—with forecasters predicting a winter far from over—spectators will be left wondering until the much-anticipated emergence of the furry woodland creature.

The most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, resides in Pennsylvania, and his predictions have been publicized in beloved tradition for more than a century. This year, head on over to the official Punxsutawney website for information on the celebrations that last for days—dining, parties, music and much more are included.

Did you know? In Alaska, Feb. 2 is known as Marmot Day, since few groundhogs live in Alaska.

Origins of Groundhog Day lie in the ancient pagan holiday known as Imbolc, which falls between winter solstice and the spring equinox. Similar “prediction” holidays have existed around the world for hundreds of years, with native groups looking to a variety of hibernating animals, from bears to snakes (Wikipedia has details). Phil was declared the official forecasting groundhog of America in 1887, when the city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper made the declaration and began publishing stories about the groundhog.

Wondering what groundhogs really do on Groundhog Day? National Geographic offers the scoop on a different prediction.


An ancient Gaelic festival that once was observed across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Imbolc honors the goddess Brigid and has long been associated with the coming of spring. (Wikipedia has details.) Gaelic for “ewe’s milk,” in honor of lactating sheep (and the new life of spring that they represent), Imbolc is, by some accounts, more than 12,000 years old. Traditionally, Imbolc was observed on Feb. 1, but today, dates vary.

In Gaelic Ireland, enormous feasts were held for Imbolc. The goddess Brigid was invoked for the blessing of livestock, homes were cleaned, and Brigid’s cross was fashioned and hung on front doors. Brigid was said to visit favored households on Imbolc Eve; in return, families would set aside feasting food and drink for her. The hag of Gaelic tradition, Cailleach, is said to have gathered firewood as a prediction of weather, and in some areas, snakes and woodland creatures are watched as they emerge from their homes and hibernation.

Today, feasts continue for Imbolc in some regions (the International Business Times reported, with photos from recent celebrations). Some adherents still follow ancient rituals, by visiting holy wells and molding Brigid crosses.