“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty winds made moan; Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”

The traditional Christmas hymn is perhaps more apt in these cold and bleak post-holiday weeks. There’s a comforting thread in historical religious and cultural observances on Feb. 2, known popularly as Groundhog Day, but with roots in Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Day, and Imbolc. New life stirs, though hidden in the cold and dark.

In ancient and contemporary pagan observance, Imbolc is the cross-quarter day halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox. Observed with the lighting of candles and fires, it celebrates the return of warmth and light, the barely perceptible stirring of life in the seed still deep in the ground, the animal still hibernating in the den, the child still hidden in the womb. Embraced particularly among Celtic cultures, it was dedicated to Brigid, the goddess of fire, warmth and light, poetry, healing and smithcraft.

As Celtic lands were Christianized, Imbolc was adopted as St. Brigid’s Day, and became known also as Candlemas. Dedicated to Mary, who, like Brigid, was revered as a divine mother figure, it commemorated her ritual purification following the birth of her son, Jesus.

Candlemas, brought to the United States by Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans, actually) included folklore that the weather on Candlemas predicted the advent of spring: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.” The emergence of the groundhog from winter hibernation being a harbinger of spring made it natural to associate it with Candlemas on Feb. 2, and thus was born the uniquely American observance of Groundhog Day.

From ancient times to ours, we need something to celebrate when it seems the cold has penetrated everything to the core. Seasonal affective disorder (with its apt acronym, SAD) triggers serious depression for many and cabin fever means the blahs for most. The winter holidays feel so long ago, spring so far away.

Each of these diverse yet similar traditions tells us to take heart! Even now the signs of light and warmth and life are stirring! Through centuries and across cultures, people are heartened by the promise of light and warmth when it’s dark and cold, by believing that even “in the bleak mid-winter” lie the seeds of spring.

Can we find encouragement in the gradual increase of daylight, and in tiny steps toward a world of justice and peace? Can we believe that the warmth of human and divine love will melt the literal cold and that of loneliness, hatred, fear, and violence? Can we seek and find in the richness of religious and cultural diversity the universal hopes and dreams of the whole human family? Feb. 2 and the story of Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, Candlemas and Groundhog Day offer us inspiration to try.

The Rev. Andrea Thompson McCall is a retired United Church of Christ minister who served as interfaith chaplain at the University of Southern Maine.


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