The Christian and Pre-Christian Roots of Groundhog Day – Tablet Magazine
Some of my French friends have made the Tocquevillian observation that Americans have so many quirky national holidays, without ever having a day off for them. (This practice is almost a complete reversal of European countries, where schools and businesses regularly close for Christian holy days, even though most Europeans do not practice.) Groundhog Day seems to be such a holiday “only in America”: our Puritan heritage notion of a day off for something so frivolous, but good at least for a little friendly chat with co-workers or his dentist. It garners at least one lightweight annual news segment. Indeed, this is the premise of the film groundhog day, when a news crew led by a producer named Rita (played by Andie MacDowell) travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the local festivities surrounding the groundhog’s emergence. “These people are great, some of them have been partying all night. They sing songs until they’re too cold, then they go and sit by the fire and they warm up, then they come back and they’re singing again! she talks about the townspeople to Bill Murray’s baffled weatherman, Phil Connor. “Yeah,” he replies, “they’re assholes, Rita.”
Just as the marmot emerges cyclically, returning to its den if it sees its shadow, thus heralding an additional six weeks of winter, the Phil of groundhog day confronts its own shadows through the seemingly endless repetition of the same winter day. He must make some personal changes for the better before he can fully embrace the destiny of a “long and bright winter” among the people he finds himself with, no longer looking down upon them as backward fools. While much has been written about the Buddhist themes in Harold Ramis’ classic, fewer people are likely aware of the ancient roots of the holiday that forms the film’s thematic backdrop.
Yes, groundhog day is a Christmas movie. Type of.
At first glance, Groundhog Day looks like a quaint Mid-Atlantic American folk custom, a subject everyone in the country inexplicably has to learn about in grade school, like the song “Polly Wolly Doodle” or the life of ‘Helen Keller. However, like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, or Mardi Gras, Groundhog Day has its roots in European Christian customs, themselves likely grafted onto pre-Christian rituals, and duly assimilated to become a bizarre American holiday that takes place in an apparent temporal vacuum.
February 2 marks 40 days after Christmas, and early Christians observed this day as the “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” It was a holy day recognizing the New Testament events surrounding Christ’s first appearance in the Temple in Jerusalem, as an infant accompanying his mother for her ritual cleansing 40 days after childbirth, in accordance with the prescription found in the Leviticus. Now called the “Presentation of the Lord” in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the religious feast took on elements from different folk customs across Europe over the centuries to become a feast known as Candlemas in English, when worshipers have traditionally brought candles to church. have them blessed by a priest. Historically, this was also the time when the Christmas decorations fell.
At first glance, Groundhog Day looks like a quaint Mid-Atlantic American folk custom, a subject everyone in the country inexplicably has to learn about in grade school, like the song “Polly Wolly Doodle” or the life of ‘Helen Keller.
As is the case with Halloween and Christmas, pre-existing Christian belief and folk customs seem to have gradually coalesced into popular Candlemas celebrations. In some cases, these customs are quite old. In ancient Rome, February 15 was the feast of Lupercalia, a fertility festival, considered today by some to be a precursor to Valentine’s Day given that it included more raunchy erotic elements. However, Lupercalia was more broadly a winter festival of civic purification and seems to be a more direct antecedent of Candlemas. There were torchlight processions instead of candles, and the name of the month of February actually comes from the Latin “februare”, which means “to purify”, and Lupercalia was called dies febriatus, “Purified day”. The Lupercalia continued until the fifth century CE, when some scholars believe that Pope Gelasius ended it by instituting the Church-sanctioned Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary around the same time ; before settling on December 25, the early Christians celebrated Christmas on January 6, which meant that February 14 fell 40 days later, all around Lupercalia.
The candle-blessing tradition is commonly associated with the motifs of fire and light in the Bible readings read at the Mass of Candlemas (an abbreviation of Candle Mass, just as Christmas is an abbreviation of the Mass of Christ). The first passage read is from the prophet Micah, comparing the Lord of hosts to “a refiner’s fire”, and another is the account from the book of Luke of Mary and Christ in the Temple, 40 days after his birth, which makes reference to Christ. as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”.
Other residual pre-Christian customs are thought to remain in European Candlemas traditions. In France, it is customary to serve pancakes for dinner, a practice which, according to some hypotheses, is associated with the cakes eaten on Lupercalia, or even more mainly, with the circular shape of the sun itself. The day also comes with a superstitious hope for clear skies, indicating that spring is on the way, instead of 40 days of downpours heralded by rain. Candlemas as an omen of a continuous winter exists elsewhere in Europe and even in the United States: in Ireland there is apparently a legend about a magic witch who controls the sun, and in the United Kingdom and at the beginning of New England, a genre of rhymes and traditions about the predictive powers of Candlemas were prevalent.
Like many folk customs, it is difficult to pinpoint a single reason for the thematic consistency of Candlemas practices across cultures. As Christopher Hill said in his book Feasts and holy nights: Celebration of the twelve seasonal feasts of the Christian year, “they just seem to fit, evocatively, temptingly, the meaning of the season.”
So what about Punxsutawney Phil? How do you get from Palatine Hill to the Gobbler’s Knob? Quite simply, Groundhog Day is the Americanized German Candlemas tradition of looking to a hedgehog or badger to predict the length of winter based on whether or not it sees its shadow. The United States is not a natural habitat for hedgehogs, which is why aside from Sonic, we don’t hear much about them here. In contrast, the American landscape is positively alive with groundhogs (also called groundhogs). German immigrants to Pennsylvania therefore made the switch, with the first recorded Groundhog Day occurring in 1886.
As secular as the party has become, the stupidity of an entire country turning its lonely eyes to the activities of a Pennsylvania-based rodent would seem to nod to a deeply human underlying truth: the eternal need to seek the light. in the dark and mark the rhythmic turn of the seasons. “When Chekhov saw the long winter,” says Phil Connor towards the end of groundhog day“he saw a dark and gloomy and hopeless winter. Yet we know that winter is just one more stage in the cycle of life. The madness of Groundhog Day, which comes in the middle from the dark silence of winter and more than a month after the bright bustle of the holidays, serves as an infinitesimal release of the national pressure valve, a brief, absurd moment of civic unity and a promise of warmth and light to come.
This story is part of a year-long series that Tablet publishes to promote religious literacy in different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
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