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Groundhog Day, Hedgehogs and Candlemas


According to a German legend the forerunners of 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 Igelfutter, hedgehog food, available in almost all supermarkets.

Most healthy hedgehogs enjoy their winter hibernation and sleep the time away until Spring arrives, 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 begin slowly to come back to life.

For several European nations, including the Romans who had been introduced to the custom by the Scottish Celts, hedgehogs became a form of weather forecaster, and there is 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 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's weather by watching the behavior of hedgehogs at Candlemas, February 2nd, and celebrating when a cloudy day meant there was no shadow as in their experience it meant a quick end to the cold winter season.

Actually it's thought a bear was the original 'weather forecaster', but a for reason now lost in the mists of time it 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, which now slowly being reintroduced, were at the time widespread throughout the country, a dreaded enemy of farmers, shepherds and of course sheep.

However 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 1840s 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 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 child’s introduction to the temple and presentation to God.

Once more its origins were in an ancient pagan festival, midwinter's Imbolc, pronounced "IM-olk" and Gaelic Celtic for 'in the belly' - of the mother so 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' learned by the Romans from the Scottish Celts and introduced to the Holy Roman German Empire were absorbed into existing German folklore.

When Christianity was introduced to Europe Christian feast days were often added to existing celebrations.

For early European Christians there was a tradition of clergy blessing candles during the Christian Festival of Lights, Candlemas, which celebrates Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, a custom which 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 the congregations 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.

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 2nd 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 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, and the spirit began to reawaken. And just as in centuries past it does herald 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 and ©Ana'Sko via fotocommunity.de, the 'exploring' hedgehog is by and ©Franz Horvath via the naturschutzbund.at


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Content copyright © 2014 by Francine McKenna. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna for details.

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