Thursday, February 02, 2017

From The Presentation at the Temple to Groundhog Day

Here in the States, February 2 is Groundhog Day. But that celebration springs from the ancient Christian holiday of The Presentation at the Temple, or Candlemas, along with various pre-Christian festivals it supplanted. The holiday stems from the Jewish purification rite for women after childbirth, which takes place forty days after the birth of a male child, as well as the ritual of the redemption of the firstborn, which exempts the firstborn not of the Levite tribe from priestly service. The story of the purification ritual is found only in the Gospel of Luke:
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
-Luke 2:22-38 (NRSV)

The story refers obliquely to the Holy Family's poverty. Leviticus 12 states that the woman “shall bring
to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.” But, “if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.” Luke's audience would have been aware that the offering of two doves was an indication that Joseph and Mary could not afford a lamb.
Luke also gives us the prophetic stories of Simeon and Anna. Simeon, for whom it was prophesied that he would not die until he had seen the Annointed, responds to his encounter with the infant Jesus with poetry and prophecy. Anna, who reminds us that prophets are not always men, proclaims the Savior.
So how did the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord become Groundhog Day? The early Christian bishops were expert at co-opting local festivals, and most of them were willing to look the other way when elements of paganism showed up in the celebrations. The Presentation, forty days from Christmas, coincided with the Celitc feast of Imbolc, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, and the Germanic celebration of the bear.
At Imbolc, the festival of the goddess Brigid, usually celebrated February 1, the Celts went out into the fields with torches to bless the land about to be plowed.
Lupercalia honored the Lupercus, the god of fertility and shepherds, and was celebrated February 15. Part of the festival was to purify the city. Plutarch described another aspect of the celebration:

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
Thus, the festival tied in well with the Purification.
A third pagan festival, from which Groundhog Day developed, was the Germanic celebration of the bear, marking the time bears came out of hibernation to check on the weather. According to the Wikipedia page, “Candlemas,” the “festival was characterized by bear costumes or disguises, and mock rapes and abductions of young girls.” There were also torchlight processions.
So the Church's Feast of the Presentation absorbed elements of all these pagan festivals. The torches were replaced with candles, and the celebration became known as Candlemas. And the bear seems to have been replaced with a large rodent, which provides a raison d'être for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so he's predicted six more weeks of winter. I'll go with that. I'm not up to going out with at torch to seek a bear's lair.

(Image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Presentation at the Temple, 1342 (Uffizi, Florence)