cross quarter

Spinning through space, tomorrow February 2nd we in the Northern hemisphere find ourselves smack between the winter solstice, shortest day of the year, and the vernal equinox, when light and dark will be evenly split.  Yes, it’s getting lighter, and you should begin to be able to appreciate it.  The Celtic pagans called this day Imbolc* and celebrated the returning of the light with feasting, fire and candles to hasten return of the light, crosses fashioned from wheat stalks to honor the day’s patron Fire Goddess Brigid, and even an animal based weather prediction.  This one’s a little strange, as the critter observed was the snake emerging from Brigid’s womb.  Today’s Wiccans continue the observance, although I don’t know about the snake.  In the Catholic Church, this became a 2 day festival (cross quarter days wobble a bit) with February 1st (now she’s a-) St. Brigid’s day and February 2 Candlemas (still with the fire to encourage the light along with celebrations of rebirth).

So how did it happen that instead of feasting and fires, we hang onto news from Pennsylvania about some silly but fun rodent?  Imbolc was one of the first pagan festivals appropriated by the Church, with the first Feast of the Presentation (see Luke 2:2-40), now also known as Candlemas and Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated 40 days after Christmas 4 A.D. in Jerusalem.  Central European tribes who begat the ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch who settled around Punxsutawny watched the movements of the badger for weather clues, particularly his behavior on emerging from hibernation and encountering the light in late winter.  As this line of people became German and Christianized, they incorporated this rite of rodent observation into Candlemas services as Dachstag – Badger Day – with a prescribed folk formula in German: “Sonnt sich der Dachs in der Lichtmeßwoche, so geht er auf vier Wochen wieder zu Loche,” which in English is reminiscent of the Groundhog day lore we know: “If the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole.”  Pennsylvania has few badgers, so the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers adopted the similar looking and much more abundant groundhog to continue their observations.  The ritual we recognize as Groundhog Day began as a publicity stunt, of course.   In 1887, the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, himself a member of a local hunting club: the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, declared while standing on Gobbler’s Knob that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog.  So for 137 years and counting, Americans have breathlessly awaited to hear if one of Phil’s descendants has seen his shadow, often trying to remember the formula.  Instead of the 4 more weeks of winter the sun-shunning German badger gave, retreating Phil gives us 6.  Since weather is a very local phenomenon, why do we care what happens in Central Pennsylvania?  A number of north American communities have tackled this problem by adopting a local groundhog (they are plentiful creatures) for their own ceremonies.  I’ve been taking names over the years, and here’s my list:

Balzac BillyAlberta, Canada  
Buckeye ChuckMarion, Ohio  
General Beauregard LeeYellow Game River Ranch, California  
Pee Wee the
Miles Square Farm, Vermont  
Punxsutawny PhilPunxsutawny, Pennsylvania  
Shubenacadie SamWildlife National Park, Nova Scotia, Canada  
Sir Walter WallyNorth Carolina Museum of Natural Science, Raleigh, North Carolina  
Smith Lake JakeBirmingham, Alabama  
Staten Island ChuckStaten Island, New York  
Wiarton WillieWiarton, Bruce County (on the Bruce Peninsula), Ontario,
Woody the
Howell, Michigan  

There may be one near you.  Here in southeast lower Michigan, we’re blessed with two close by:  Wiarton Willie (a rare albino) and Woody.

So now you know a little more about one of the calendar’s least appreciated holidays.  And boy do we need one about now, at least around here.  Around here we always expect a bright sunny Groundhog day, then ruin it for ourselves when we hear what the damn groundhog did.

So don’t let your joy or sorrow tomorrow rest on what your local woodchuck does, or even on who wins the Super Bowl.  Celebrate the day as the ancients did, recognizing that on the climb from the pit of winter to the hope of spring, you’re halfway there, and beginning to see the light.  Light a fire and help it along, don’t crawl back in.

*also called Oimelc to honor the milk beginning to flow in the teats of pregnant herd animals

Published by rike52

I retired from the Rheumatology division of Michigan Medicine end of June '19 after 36 years there. Upon hitting Ann Arbor for the second time (I went to school here) it took me almost 8 months to meet Kathy, 17 months to buy her a house (on Harbal, where we still live), and 37 months to marry her. Kids never came, but we've been blessed with a crowd of colleagues, friends, neighbors and family that continues to grow. Lots of them are going to show up in this log eventually. Stay tuned.

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