Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day

This article, from an earlier parish newsletter is posted here by request.

Candlewax and Hedgehogs—a peculiar way to entitle an article, I’ll admit. But both have their associations with the second day of February. The first is more important so we’ll begin there. The second day of February is one of the 12 great feasts, and is also celebrated by Christians in the West. The feast is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, described in the second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel.

There we are told that the Christ child was brought by his mother into the temple in fulfillment of the law, 40 days after his birth (February 2 is 40 days after December 25). The Old Testament Law commanded that “every male that openeth the womb (the first born child) shall be holy to the Lord.” Thus the child was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and an offering made on His behalf in thanksgiving to God for his birth.

The Most Holy Mother of God certainly kept this teaching of the Law. We are told that she brought her child to the Temple to make offering (and to receive her purification—another required rite of the Temple). There she was met by two people, one a woman, another a man, and both of them prophets. The woman, Anna the Prophetess, spoke to her concerning her child. The aged prophet Symeon, saw the mother and Child and exclaimed in words we repeat at every Vespers:

Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. To be a Light to enlighten the nations and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

This prophecy of St. Symeon has as its key phrase the description that Christ would be a “light to enlighten the gentiles.” It is the emphasis on light that brings these words each evening to the service of Vespers, when we give thanks to God for the Light He has given us. It is also for this reason that candles are blessed on this holy day. The candles of the Church (and especially those to be taken home and used by the faithful) are blessed on this day, because they remind us that Christ is the “light of the world.”

The associations of this feast with light is also where the hedgehogs come in. Christian cultures have usually never let the feasts of the Church stay within the Church itself, but have exported them to the house and farm. So it was that in Europe (particularly Germany) there arose a folk custom that on the Feast of the Presentation (also called “Candlemas” because candles were blessed on that day) if a hedgehog [badgers in some areas] should come out of his burrow and see the light (and thus his shadow) he would return to his burrow because winter would last six more weeks.

German immigrants brought this folk custom to America in the 1800’s. There being no hedgehogs, the groundhog was drafted to take his place. Thus the secular calendar celebrates “Groundhog Day.” But only the faithful Christian knows and understands the secret of the Light that shines on February 2nd. Not the light of the sun, frightening a furry creature back into his hole, but the Light of Christ, which frightens all the evil powers that would do us harm.

For an interesting theological meditation on Groundhog Day, I suggest you rent and view the movie by that title. Bill Murray finds redemption as he lives his way through a near eternity of Groundhog Days. But I will spare you.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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10 responses to “Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day”

  1. Kate Avatar
    Kate

    Thank you Father, I had no idea about these things! There is always more to learn as an Orthodox Christian.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Most customs of this sort have a root in our Christian past (often having baptized earlier pre-Christian practices). Nursery rhymes are especially full of Christian culture – or historical reference. It’s as though we lived in the ruins of a beautiful civilization and never imagined that anybody lived there.

  3. NW Nikolai Avatar
    NW Nikolai

    This amazes me.

    And I am still in awe of how pious Tsar Nicholas and his family were (just having recently read his story). Before this time I had a vague sense that he was corrupt which led to the execution of the royal family. How erroneous that was! His grandfather had emancipated the peasant class and was adored by them. Tsar Nicholas himself was commended by the US president for having some of the most progressive labor laws concerning women and children that put the democracies of that time to shame.

    Orthodoxy has opened perspectives and viewpoints that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise apart from God’s grace! I am humbled at His condescension.

    Nikolai (Velimirovic) – and through my name Saint I’m discovering Serbia’s rich Orthodox heritage.

  4. Frank Avatar
    Frank

    Hedgehog in the Fog (Yuriy Norshteyn, 1975)

    A little hedgehog decides to explore the fog…

  5. frontierorthodoxy Avatar

    Fr. Steven, I like the post and your point concerning nursery rhymes. One thing that we have noticed in our house was that many publishers have made them PC. Once, we were listening to a new CD and the little kittens got pie precisely because they lost their mittens! Micah asked why they got their pie. 😀 Gotta love it when a little one can get the moral and a publishing house cannot!

    BTW, I linked to this post over at my blog. The content fit. Hope you don’t mind.

  6. marshmk Avatar

    This year as I reflected on the Feast of the Presentation I was struck by the reality of shadows (Groundhog Day) and light (Feast of Meeting) in our lives and world, http://interruptingthesilence.com/2010/02/04/a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-the-presentation-candlemas/

  7. marshmk Avatar

    I apologize if this is a repeat comment but I do not think my original comment was accepted. As I reflected on The Feast of the Presentation this year a young school girl helped me recognize the interplay of shadows (Groundhog Day) and light (Candlemas) – a reality not just of this day but of our lives and world, http://interruptingthesilence.com/2010/02/04/a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-the-presentation-candlemas/

  8. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Father Stephen, Thanks you. So interesting to learn new things. I am a convert to Orthodoxy and never stop being amazed and how much there is to learn!!

  9. Paul Avatar
    Paul

    Thanks, Father! Great post.

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