Animal worship? Mass gatherings devoted to seemingly pointless behavior? I smell ritual magick. (Or is that hippies? I can’t tell.)
According to old Wikipedia, a diary entry from 1841 points to a German tradition of observing the behavior of groundhogs on Candlemas. If it sees a shadow, meaning the sun is out, he retreats for another six weeks of napping. If not, spring has started and it’s time to go find a lady groundhog (or whatever it prefers, no judgement here).
Candlemas, or ‘The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple‘, is an obscure Christian holiday which references an even obscurer Jewish tradition of post-natal ritual purification. Known as ‘pidyon haben‘, or ‘redemption of the first-born’, and said to have occurred 40 days after Jesus’ birth, it is the source of the line “two turtle doves” in the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Interestingly, Imbolc is usually celebrated around February 1st as well, which is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This is one of four ‘cross-quarter’ days and was regarded as the start of Spring. (The other days are Samhain (a.k.a. Halloween), Beltane and Lughnasadh. Is Candlemas yet another attempt by the early Christian church to co-opt a pagan holiday? Color me shocked.
An alternative hypothesis is that due to confusion regarding the calendar, the groundhog fetish is a way to ‘split the difference’ between the traditional view of Imbolc as start of Spring (when the days start to be noticeably longer), and those who regard the Vernal Equinox (six weeks later, when the days become longer than the nights).
The Jungian in me can’t help but focus on the archetypes involved. Coming out of a warm dark hole into cold, bright light to be confronted by your shadow? Sounds more like life than I care to admit. If only that little guy would turn around and face the sun.