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Groundhog Day, Hedgehogs and Candlemas
Hedgehogs were the forerunners of the Groundhog Day tradition in German folklore. A protected species in Germany, there is a "Hedgehog Hotline" open to anyone with an "Igel" emergency and countrywide support associations, while Igelfutter, Hedgehog Food, is available in almost all supermarkets.
Healthy hedgehogs enjoy their winter hibernation and sleep the time away until Spring. Except it seems many years ago, perhaps even now, when 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 six weeks.
Or slowly begin to come back to life.
For several European nations, including the Romans who had been introduced to the custom by Scottish Celts, hedgehogs became something of weather forecaster, and there is an old 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 2 is Candlemas.
For the Romans "weather forecasting day" was February 5 with no connection to Candlemas, however the custom was brought to the USA by both German and English immigrants; with those coming from England having their own 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 many European cultures had predicted 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 meant a quick end to the cold winter season.
It is thought that a bear was the original "forecaster", but for reasons lost in the mists of time this became a hedgehog.
Just how impatient "the ancients" 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, now slowly being reintroduced, were at the time widespread and a dreaded enemy of farmers, shepherds, and of course sheep.
There was an absence of hedgehogs when settlers arrived in the "New World" so an alternative was found and the shadow of a Groundhog, the Woodchuck respected by the Delaware Indians as a wise, sensible animal and their honorable ancestor, now predicts six more weeks of winter weather on a sunny and clear February 2.
A tradition followed at least as far back as the 1840's by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, and known as "Groundhog Day".
The immigrants brought with them another European tradition celebrating the triumph of light over darkness on February 2. Forty days after the official birth of Jesus, and midway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, is the religious feast of "Maria Lichtmess", Candlemas Day, in honor of the mother of Jesus and the Jewish custom of a child’s introduction to temple and presentation to God.
When Christianity was introduced to Europe Christian feast days were often added to existing celebrations, and again the origins of Maria Lichtmess are in an ancient pagan festival. Midwinter's Imbolc, pronounced "IM-olk" and Gaelic Celtic for "in the belly" - of the mother; Perhaps referring to spring lambing etc.
A first celebration of spring, marking lengthening days and beginning of the farming season with festivities, had been taking place in one form or another for centuries, but "extras" learned by the Romans from the Scottish Celts, and introduced to the Holy Roman German Empire, were absorbed into existing German folklore.
For early European Christians there was a tradition of clergy blessing candles during the "Christian Festival of Lights", Candlemas that celebrated "Jesus Christ as the Light of the World", and this is a custom that the Pope continues to this day as head of the Catholic church.
All sacred candles expected to be used during the year’s church services, and those of the congregation, were blessed, with those belonging to the congregation returned. To be lit and placed by the windows of their homes in the darkness of winter.
A Candlemas tradition still be found in some regions of Germany, and that includes not taking down the Christmas tree until February 2.
Germany's culture is rich with ancient Bauernregeln, farming folk lore and wisdom based on signs from nature, covering everything from "early singing of cuckoos and nightingales signalizing an early summer", to "spiders disappearing from view meaning winter is on its way", and superstition is now the only form of recognition a hedgehog's appearance on February 2 receives.
No Groundhog Day partying for him.
By the time Candlemas arrives the sun will have increased an hour since winter's solstice, and in Germany's Black Forest 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, and the spirit began to reawaken. Just as in centuries past 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.
The photo of a West European Hedgehog "peeking" has won several awards, and is by ©Ana'Sko via fotocommunity.de, the "exploring" hedgehog by ©Franz Horvath via the naturschutzbund.at
Content copyright © 2015 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
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