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The Christian Origins of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day may seem like a comical product of the modern era, but its roots actually stretch back to when Christians celebrated the purification of the infant Jesus on that early February day.

February 2 is roughly equidistant between the winter solstice and spring equinox and has been observed by many ancient peoples. The Celts celebrated February 2 — Imbolc, they called it — as the first day of spring, and records of these Celtic celebrations date back to the tenth century A.D.

Christians have celebrated Candlemas on February 2 as the day Mary brought Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated to God, and this is where Groundhog Day traces its beginning. In accordance with Jewish law, Mary brought Jesus to the Temple to be presented to God 40 days after his birth, which is observed on December 25. February 2 marked the fortieth day and was thus the day for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Some believe the name “Candlemas” comes from when Simeon held the Savior and declared Jesus is the light of the world. Candles handed out in church services or brought by lay people to be blessed hearken back to this truth of God’s nature.

As the date coincides with the coming of spring, traditions of predicting weather grew up around the holiday. If the sun came out, people began to believe there would be a long winter; if the sun remained hidden, they hoped and believed that spring would come. Romans brought the holiday north to the Germanic tribes, and the Germans developed the day into what we now recognize as Groundhog Day: if the badger, hedgehog or other animal popped out of his hole and saw his shadow, winter continued, they said. If he didn’t see his shadow, spring was approaching.

German immigrants brought the tradition with them to the new world and chose the American groundhog to foretell their seasons. In 1887, the holiday was first officially celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pa., and is celebrated to this day with the groundhog predicting the weather in the holiday’s American hometown.

While a groundhog playing weatherman is a far cry from the presentation of Jesus Christ at the Temple, this fun holiday is rooted in a spiritual celebration of new life.

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