By John Copeland
Can you believe January is already over?! We’ve turned the calendar page to February, the shortest month of the year. February is the one month of our calendar not named for a God, a Roman emperor or a number. It is really named for a festival, Februa, the ancient Roman festival of purification. Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound like much of a festival. But, for the Romans the festival was basically a time spring cleaning and also associated with the rain of this time of year. Hopefully, here in California, we’ll see some more rain this month.
February and Februa was a time of atonement for the ancient Romans. It seems a bit premature to have any serious regrets about the year just begun, but, before Julius Caesar reformed the old Roman Calendar, February was the last month of the Roman year, so one could have actually had a few things to regret from the past year.
While the Romans were festively purifying, other ancestors were celebrating a fire goddess, while still others were celebrating sheep (I know that sounds a little scary), and later, the blessing of church candles, bears and still later, groundhogs. Each of these observances have Feb. 2 in common. Now, when you stop and think about it, all these events seem random and unrelated. Truth is, they are not.
How our distant ancestors marked the cycle of the year is pretty interesting. Every culture celebrated specific days marking the cycle of the seasons, and Feb. 2 is one of those days.
I find it intriguing that the first important date of February is not the 1st, but rather the 2nd. That’s because, Feb. 2 is exactly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Today our hours of daylight are 1 hour and 2 minutes longer than back on Dec. 21, at the winter solstice. To our ancestors Feb. 2 was a cross-quarter day.
A cross what, you ask?
Well, there are quarter days and cross-quarter days. They are some of the oldest days we still observe during the year, they are at least as old as New Year’s.
No matter where on Earth they lived, our distant ancestors divided the year into four parts and held celebrations on those days. Those were the quarter days: the Winter Solstice, the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice and finally the Autumn Equinox. Today, we recognize the quarter days as the start of our seasons.
Other early cultures further divided the year, marking the halfway points between the solstices and the equinoxes. These were the cross-quarter days. These days are Oct. 31, Samhain (Halloween), Feb. 2 (Imbolc – more on this in a moment), May 1 (Beltane) and Aug. 1 (Lughnasad).
Feb. 2 is the first cross-quarter day of the year and the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, celebrating that the days are getting longer and the onset of lactation in ewes, that will soon give birth to lambs, a sure sign that spring is not far off. In ancient Gaelic the word “Imbolc” literally means “lamb’s milk.” So there is the day’s association with sheep.
Feb. 2 is also Brigid’s Day. Brigid, was a Celtic fire goddess that was so popular with the common folk, the Catholic Church eventually canonized her as a Christian saint. Both Brigid the Goddess and Brigid the Saint are associated with a sacred flame, holy wells, springs, healing and smith-craft. Fire and purification are an important aspect of her festival. Brigid represents the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence was very important at this time of year.
Feb. 2 is also Candlemas. It was the day of the year when all the candles that would be used in the church during the coming year were blessed, so it was the day of the Mass of the Candles. In the past, Candlemas was celebrated with a festival of lights. This custom lasted in England until Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned the practice.
That brings us to the groundhog. According to legend, if a groundhog sees its shadow on this day, there will be six more weeks of winter; if it does not, then spring is right around the corner. Of course, this refers wintry weather conditions. We like to joke “If he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter; if he doesn’t, it’ll be six weeks till spring” because, of course, the dates of the equinox do not change.
You have probably figured out that a lot of the observances on Feb. 2, are grounded in the seasons, estimating how soon spring-like weather will come. Our Groundhog Day is a survivor of these beliefs. Its deeper meaning speaks to the triumph of spring over winter and birth over death. Though we recognize animal behavior is not always the way to judge planting dates, the tradition continues, with a wink and a smile.
Did you know, originally, the day wasn’t about groundhogs. In Europe, Feb. 2 was around the time that badgers emerged from hibernation to inspect the weather. If they chose to return to their lairs, it was interpreted to mean that severe weather would continue for, at least, another 40 days.
In colonial America, German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought their folk legends with them. Finding no badgers but, instead lots of groundhogs or woodchucks they adopted the New World species to fit the lore. It is an early example of job outsourcing; the badgers lost their weather job to a woodchuck.
Today that lore has grown into a full-blown festival, with Punxsutawney Phil presiding. But, even if Phil sees his shadow, but you can rest assured the days are getting longer and winter is coming to an end.