The Original Groundhog Day

By Philip Jenkins

If you have ever seen Bill Murray's film Groundhog Day, you know that strange and wonderful things happen on February 2, when the boundaries between worlds become perilously thin. In anticipation of this day, I thought I would explain just how that bizarre celebration came into existence. My story begins in the Jewish Temple, with stops en route in Dark Age Ireland, medieval Germany, and Victorian Pennsylvania.

February 2 in the church's calendar is Candlemas, a hugely popular celebration in the medieval church, and also for many Christians in later times. The feast originates in the Purification of the Virgin Mary in the Jerusalem Temple, described in the second chapter of Luke's gospel. As one of the cycle of feasts celebrating the Virgin, it had a natural appeal to later Catholic and Orthodox churches. But its date was multiply significant, and added vastly to its popularity. If we accept December 25 as Christmas, then the Purification logically has to fall forty days later, in keeping with Jewish law, hence February 2.

That is a highly significant time in Northern and Western Europe, a grimly dark part of the year commemorated by lights of various types and sizes, by ritual fires. In the Celtic calendar, this was the feast that the Irish called Imbolc, which falls exactly half way between the official start of Winter on November 1, and the start of Summer on May 1. However unlikely this may seem in early February, this was the opening of the Celtic Spring, and Imbolc was reputedly linked to a goddess of fire and fertility.

As its name suggests, Candlemas inherited many of those older pre-Christian features, marked as it was by the ritual lighting and display of candles. Other similar celebrations also claimed similar dates. February 1 is the feast of the beloved Irish saint Brigid, the "Mary of the Gael," with her great shrine at Kildare. Brigid's historicity is debatable, since so many of the customs associated with her cult scream pagan origins, with Brigid herself as a Christianized Celtic goddess. Some scholars claim that Kildare was originally a pagan shrine tended by a college of virgin priestesses, who converted en masse to Christianity. A twelfth century source reports that the site had a sacred flame in a ritual enclosure, which no man could cross.

Is it any wonder then that a feast rooted in Jewish custom was adopted so enthusiastically in distant Latin and Celtic Europe? As a time of transition between phases of the year, a day outside time, Imbolc/Candlemas was a special opportunity to see between the worlds, to foretell the future.

Germans saw it as a fine day for divination, and noted if and when a large mammal (usually a badger) rose out of its burrow. Would the feast really mark the beginning of Spring? Especially in Pennsylvania, their American descendants then linked these beliefs to that famous local rodent, the groundhog.

Whether as Candlemas or Brigid's day, then, the start of February was a very special day for Christians for many centuries, a taste that only faded with the decline of the old peasant agricultural world.

Puritanical modern Christians might not regret the loss of old customs that had married so happily with Europe's pagan substructures. But the church has always built on these older ideas, and converted them to its own purposes. We can look for instance at all the churches built over the ruins of ancient pagan temples, whether in Greece, France or Mexico, or at all the saints who borrow characteristics from local pagan gods. In the long term, all were subsumed into the later Christian structure, as thoroughly as Imbolc merged into Candlemas or Brigid's Day.

On Groundhog Day, then, you can see how Christian believers around the world adapted Biblical stories into their lives, merging them into older and still more ancient customs.

Or, you can just enjoy the day, and of course, the film. Can you already hear "I Got You Babe" playing in the background?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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