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Groundhog Day’s Christian roots

PADUCAH, Ky. (BP)–On Feb. 2 many Americans celebrated Groundhog Day, but most of them failed to recognize the connection that the holiday has to the early life of Christ. What is this connection?

In Luke 2:22-40 the parents of Jesus took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord and also to give a purification offering of two doves or pigeons for the mother of Jesus. In Leviticus 12:3-4 it reveals that this must occur on day 40 after the birth of a male Israelite.

When fourth century churchmen declared that the nativity of Jesus was to be celebrated on Dec. 25, a festival eventually evolved to celebrate his presentation at the Temple on February 2nd. This holiday went by many names, but in the English-speaking world it popularly came to be called Candlemas. The popular name came about because many churches blessed all the candles to be used throughout the year within that church on that day. This custom, too, possessed origins during the Lord’s presentation at the Temple when Simeon the prophet declared Jesus to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).

During the Middle Ages, Candlemas, like many Christian holidays, acquired many popular customs associated with it that had little basis in historical Christianity or the New Testament. One custom speculated that the weather on Candlemas could predict weather for the rest of the winter. One traditional Scottish poem relates:

“If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,

“Then the half o’ winter will come to mair,

“But if Candlemas Day be wet and foul,

“Then the half o’ winter is gone at Yule.

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,

“Then winter will have another flight,

“But if it be dark with clouds and rain,

“Then winter is gone and will not come again.”

Essentially the popular custom stated that a dark cloudy day on Candlemas would predict a short winter, while a sunny day meant that winter would continue for some time. The nice weather on Candlemas was thought to be only a brief interlude that would not last. Furthermore, it was also thought that animals able to see their shadows on this day would foreshadow a continuing harsh winter.

When English-speaking settlers arrived in what would be the United States, many of them tended to be Puritans or members of Christian communities that largely rejected many of the Roman Catholic or Anglican sanctioned holidays. They possessed little desire to celebrate Christmas, let alone related festivals like Candlemas. So Candlemas failed to develop into a major religious holiday in America in spite of its link to the visit of Jesus to the Temple on day 40 of His life.

Nevertheless, many of the popular customs associated with Candlemas survived in colonial America. Feb. 2 still was thought to have some significance in predicting the winter weather and Americans of European descent now transferred the animal custom of seeing its shadow to the American woodchuck (the groundhog). Slowly a popular winter festival evolved, but one largely shorn of its Christian roots.

Today Groundhog Day takes its place as a growing phenomenon in the United States complete with school observances, greeting cards, trinkets and paraphernalia for purchase, and even a federally-sanctioned “official” groundhog in Pennsylvania. The holiday was also commemorated in a popular Hollywood movie of the early 1990s.

Hopefully, most Americans and many Baptists can be educated to recognize that Groundhog Day once celebrated an important event in the early life of the Savior. The day commemorates the first New Testament promise that Christ would also be the Savior of the Gentiles.
Stephen Wilson is the Vice-President of Academic Affairs at Mid-Continent University and also a member of the SBC Executive Committee.

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  • Stephen Douglas Wilson