Half Holidays and Groundhogs


Tomorrow is Groundhog's Day: the one day of the year Bill Murray is relevant. Just kidding. I like Bill Murray. But there's no doubt that watching that film he made in 1993 has become almost as big a ritual as waiting for the news from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as to whether or not Phil, the resident rodent, has seen his shadow.

It's all a great bit of fun—so much so that other towns across the country have tried to steal Punxsutawney's thunder by appointing prognosticating marmots of their own. (I lied above; groundhogs aren't really rodents; they're marmots, which are little more than tubby squirrels. For real. You can look it up.) Punxsutawney reigns supreme though—thanks to Bill Murray. Few of us take the day seriously and tend to rely more on the National Weather Service than Marmot Meteorological Inc. Plus, it hardly matters to New Englanders if Phil sees his shadow. We just do the math and yell "Wahoo!" if he does and a longer winter is forecast. Winter will be over in six weeks? Wahoo! For those who don't know, "Wahoo!" is an olde New England term that roughly translates: "Throw the rest of them quashes and tofus out the back for the hippies, Maudie. Bust out them steaks in the freezer, and fire up the grill." That's a mouthful, so Wahoo is more compact.

Perhaps I exaggerate. What would you say, though, if I told you that Groundhog's Day is actually an important day on the calendar? The day didn't start out being about marmots. Scots and Germans once started looking for animals emerging from their holes around February 2, especially rabbits, snakes, and badgers—a folkloristic way of gauging the weather. Christians used to celebrate Candlemas on February 2 because it was 40 days from Christmas and Mary could go to the temple to be purified after giving birth, and wouldn't have to live outside the encampment anymore. (Hey, I'm just reporting here.)

But February 2 isn't important for those reasons either. Its significance lies with our Scots, Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic ancestors. Today, Westerners have just four seasonal markers: the spring equinox (March 20), the summer solstice (June 21), the fall equinox (September 22), and the winter solstice (December 21). The Celts knew a lesson every child knows: the anticipation of an event is often better than the event itself. To that end, Celts had eight calendrical markers, the four just mentioned, plus dates between them, which were more worthy of celebration.

Think about it. Long before the spring equinox we notice the days getting longer and it's sort of a bummer when it comes, because it really isn't spring anywhere except places where they don't have seasons. Likewise, as much as I love long days, the summer solstice is depressing as it means the light will slowly drain from the sky starting the very next day. So the Celts add four fire holidays in between the equinoxes and solstices, two associated with women and two with men.

Tomorrow is actually the female fire day of Imbolc (ĭhm-ōlk), which is probably how it got associated with Mary in the first place. Europeans used to burn leftover parts of their Yule logs that day and, yep, Yule was a pagan holiday that was celebrated with (ahem!) mistletoe, wreaths, and decorated trees. For me, though, by Groundhog's Day I begin to see how much lighter the days are becoming and I can feel the sun's rays beating upon me with greater strength—even on a cold day.

After the spring equinox—which Celts called Ostara—comes the next Celtic Half Holiday—the one many of us celebrate as May Day. The Celtic is Beltane. The fires are said to be male and it's a phallic fertility celebration. Every wonder why we dance around a pole on May 1? Or why there are a lot of June weddings? (You might want to consider some of these "shotgun" matches!)

The summer solstice—Celtic Litha—occurs in June and round about August 1 comes the early "harvest," an event called Lughnasadh, which looks more imposing to say than it is (Lew'-năh-săh). Harvest festivals are almost always female. Some of the fires go toward baking bread or harvest feast foods in the hearth.

The fall equinox—Mabon—sneaks up on us in September, but before we settle in for the winter to eat squash and tofu, there's that event we call Halloween. The Celts called it Samhain (Să'-wēēn) and it's actually such a big deal that it lasts two days; that is, through November 1, which we call "All Saints Day."  Saints? Nope! The fires went hand in hand with gifts left in the woods for spirits. All the small fires were put out and embers were used to ignite a massive bonfire to illuminate a blowout feast and to appease the spirits so they'll make winter a mild one.

Next is winter itself; call it solstice or call it Yule. Then comes the dark and cold. By February, we need a warm marmot with which to cuddle. Or maybe just a roaring fire instead! The Scot in me notes that Imbolc is just one week after Robert Burns Day (January 25), traditionally celebrated by having a dram or two or three. Time for some fire as that warmth has worn off. 

Rob Weir

No comments: