Ground Hog Day

LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION COLUMN FOR

February 2, 2013 by William H. Scarle Jr. 

 Today I will pack away my olive wood nativity set for another year if God wills.  Why?  Because it is the right time.  I know my readers, especially those in Pennsylvania, think this is Groundhog Day, but the groundhog is a very late intruder into this significant time in the calendar of the Church and the celebration of the life of Jesus.

A little mathematics will tell you that if you celebrate Christmas on December 25, February 2 is exactly 40 days from the birth of Jesus.  That was an important day in the life of the family of Mary and Joseph.  They traveled from Bethlehem the six miles into Jerusalem.  There Mary went through the ritual of purification as prescribed in Leviticus 12.  The child Jesus was presented to the priests and “set apart to the Lord” as stipulated in Exodus 13.

Luke records the beautiful stories of the family’s encounter with the aged Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:22ff).  Some of the best Gospel scholarship I know of believes that Luke is the first of the Gospels written.  Luke certainly had access to the family and to details the other writers did not.

The Feast of the Presentation is among the earliest celebrations of the Church.  Sermons on the feast are preserved from Methodius of Petara (312), Cyril of Jerusalem (361), Gregory the Theologian (389) and others.  Egeria records the celebration of the feast in Jerusalem as a part of her pilgrimage memoir (381 – 384) in some detail.

The Feast of the Presentation took on the alternative name of Candlemas because on that occasion the beeswax candles for use during the year were dedicated.

The question remains, “How did such a profound celebration end up as ‘Groundhog Day’?”

In the United Kingdom good weather on Candlemas is an indication of severe weather yet to come.   An old sailors saying runs, “If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite.  If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”

It was also alleged that this is the day when bears and wolves come out of their hibernation to inspect the weather.

The Pennsylvania Dutch brought this superstition to America so that the largest celebrations are found in Punxsutawney and southeastern Pennsylvania.

It is a commentary on human nature that we have the proclivity of trading in the profound for the trivial.   Only partly trivial is the tradition of taking down the Christmas decorations on Candlemas.  The reason is obvious.  Lent is just less than two weeks away and the emphasis shifts to resurrection.  A poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) entitled “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve” sums up the tradition.  “Down with the rosemary, and so/ Down with the mistletoe; / Down with the holy, ivy, all, / Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.”

When all is said and done I will miss my Nativity.  It takes me back to where I purchased it – Jerusalem.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at ravscarle@verizon.net).