What does Punxsutawney Phil have to do with the Catholic Church, a Pagan Goddess, and an Irish Abbess who later became a Saint? We all know the groundhog from Pennsylvania who comes forth on February 2nd and predicts the onset of spring, if not so precisely, then at least in terms of sooner or later. It makes perfect sense that the date is what is known as a cross quarter day, half way between the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21st and the Vernal Equinox on March 21st. The Catholic Church recognizes it as the festival day of Candlemas, when the return of light with the lengthening of days is acknowledged by the blessing of candles. As with Groundhog’s Day, the weather on Candlemas was believed to be an indication of spring’s onset, winter’s end being delayed if the day was sunny and bright.
Pre-Christian Celtic tradition brings us Brigid, whose was said to be born on February 1st, her birth taking place over a threshold. Fittingly, she became the patroness of transitions, literally from winter to spring but symbolically in all aspects of nature, life and the human experience. She also represents fire and light, another connection to the tradtions of Candlemas, and is seen as the protector of home and hearth, patroness of the arts, particularly poetry, animal husbandry and childbirth!
After Catholicism took hold in Great Britain, the figure of Brigid is integrated into church lore through Brigid of Kildare, an Irish Christian nun with many of the same characteristics as her mythological counterpart, and who later became one of the three patron saints of Ireland along with Patrick and Columba. Her mythological goddess qualities translate seamlessly into a saint who performed miracles, particularly around births and healings, and is the subject of many Irish legends today. One such story tells of when St. Brigid went to a wealthy lord to ask for land to build a convent. The lord thought it was a ridiculous request and refused, but Brigid had faith that God would help. “If I spread my cloak upon the ground, will you give me all of the land that it covers?” she asked. The lord considered this nothing more than a joke, seeing that the cloak was very small, and so he agreed. When Brigid spread her cloak on the ground, it began to grow, and before their very eyes spread further and further until it covered many acres of land. The lord then recognized that Brigid was blessed by God, and not only gave her the land but became a Christian and a patron of the poor.
The thread weaving all of this together, of course, is that we have now crossed the half way mark to spring. Even as brutally cold and windy as it was yesterday, I was surprised by some tiny green shoots coming up in the front yard, and I noticed that it’s not so dark at 5:30 anymore. Sooner or later, spring will come– but it doesn’t take a groundhog to tell us that.