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Groundhog Day, Hedgehogs and Candlemas
According to a German legend the forerunners to the Groundhog Day tradition were hedgehogs, which are now a protected species in Germany with their own Hedgehog Hotline open to anyone with an Igel emergency, countrywide support associations and specialized food available in almost all supermarkets.
Most healthy hedgehogs enjoy their winter hibernation, sleeping the time away until Spring arrives, except it seems many years ago, and perhaps even now, around the beginning of February they would leave their den, inspect the weather and depending on what they found decide whether or not they would disappear for another four or so weeks, or begin slowly to come back to life.
For several European nations, including the Romans once they had been introduced to the custom by the Scottish Celts, hedgehogs became a form of weather forecaster, and there was ancient German proverb:
Wenn der Igel Lichtmess seinen Schatten sieht,
so Kriecht er wieder auf sechs Wochen ins Loch.
If the hedgehog sees his shadow at Candlemas,
He will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks
And February 2nd is Candlemas.
For the Romans "weather forecasting day" was February 5th with no connection to Candlemas, however the custom was brought to the USA by both German and English immigrants with those from England also having a piece of farmer's wisdom:
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Come, winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.
For centuries different European cultures had predicted the spring weather by watching the behavior of hedgehogs at Candlemas, February 2nd, celebrating when a cloudy day meant there was no shadow as, in their experience, this seemed to show that there was to be a quick end to the cold winter season.
Actually it was thought that originally a bear was used as the weather forecaster, but for whatever reason, which is now lost in the mists of time, this became the hedgehog.
Just how impatient they were to see the arrival of spring was summed up by another German proverb, "a shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than see the sun shine".
Wolves were then widespread throughout the country, a dreaded enemy of farmers, shepherds and of course sheep.
However an absence of hedgehogs when settlers arrived in the 'New World' meant an alternative was found, and it is the shadow of a Groundhog, the woodchuck respected by the Delaware Indians as a wise, sensible animal and their honorable ancestor, which on a sunny clear February day predicts six more weeks of winter weather. A tradition followed at least as far back as the 1840s by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, and now known as Groundhog Day.
The immigrants brought with them another European tradition celebrating the triumph of light over darkness on February 2nd, 40 days after the official birth of Jesus and midway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. The religious feast of Maria Lichtmess Candlemas Day, in honor of the mother of Jesus and the Jewish custom of the childís introduction to the temple and presentation to God.
Its origins were the ancient pagan midwinter festival of Imbolc, pronounced "IM-olk" and a Gaelic Celtic word meaning 'in the belly', (of the mother, perhaps referring to the coming spring lambing etc).
A first celebration of spring, marking lengthening days and the beginning of the farming season with festivities, had been taking place in one form or another for centuries, however 'extras', which the Romans had learned from the Scottish Celts and then brought to the Holy Roman German Empire, were absorbed into existing German folklore.
As was the custom when Christianity was introduced to Europe the existing celebrations were added to a Christian feast day .
For the early European Christians there was a tradition of clergy blessing candles during the Christian Festival of Lights, Candlemas, the festival of lights which celebrates Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, and as head of the Catholic Church the Pope continues the custom to this day.
All the sacred candles expected to be used during the yearís church services, as well as those of the congregation, were blessed, the congregationís candles were returned and in the darkness of winter these were lit and placed by the windows of their homes. Another Candlemas tradition which still takes place in some regions of Germany.
Germany's culture is rich with ancient Bauernregeln, farming folk lore and wisdom based on signs from nature, which cover everything from "early singing of cuckoos and nightingales signalizing an early summer", to "spiders disappearing from view meaning winter is on its way", and such a superstition is now the only form of recognition that the February 2nd appearance of a hedgehog receives.
No Ground Hog Day partying for him.
When Candlemas arrives the sun will have increased an hour since the winter solstice, and in the rural Black Forest area of Germany the optimistic feeling that days were lengthening, spring was on its way and routines could once again begin to change, was summed up with:
'Lichtmess, Spinnen vergess, bei Tag zu Nacht ess!'
Candlemas, forget your spinning and eat supper by daylight
Candlemas came from the ancient pagan Imbolc celebration, a time when seeds were planted, fires lit, the spirit began to reawaken. And as true now as it was then it heralds the dawning of Spring, even if the Groundhog, or hedgehog, takes one look at the weather and rushes back down into his den.
Photo West European Hedgehog, by Hrald, Papa Lima Whisk, via Wikipedia
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