Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day

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) that 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 in North America, the groundhog was drafted to take its place. Thus the secular calendar in America 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.





20 responses to “Candlewax and Hedgehogs – Groundhog Day”

  1. Michelle Avatar

    I did not even know this was a holiday of any churches! My church does not use candles but my husband makes candles as a home business, and we use them frequently at home. I do love candles. They bring a spirit of solemnity, peace, beauty, and prayerfulness to a room.

  2. Cindy George Avatar
    Cindy George

    Leave it to you to teach me the ‘sacred’ meaning of Groundhog day. Thank you again and again for your blog

  3. Virginia Chryssikos Avatar

    Blessed Feast Day of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple! Thank you very much for this blog! I loved it.
    Friends here where I live have often asked me questions about the association of the two “celebrations,” But I never did my homework to be able to convey what you have written.
    Your writings are truly spiritually edifying. God Bless and keep you well, through the prayers of our All Holy Theotokos and all the Saints. Amen.

  4. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I don’t see anything here about Solzhenitsyn.

  5. Matthew Avatar

    It’s interesting to me that when the groundhog faces the light it exposes his darkness (shadow) and this causes him to return to an ascetic, repentant state (back in the whole) for 40 days before “resurrecting”. Kind of sounds like Great Lent 😊
    Jonathan Pageau’s interview with Richard Rohlin about groundhogs day is a must listen imo. Blessed Feast!

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David, (who is a parishioner of mine, and this is an inside joke)…
    You have to read between the lines.

  7. Simon Avatar

    I have thought about these words over the last several years: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation.” I use to pray them. Symeon is clearly prepared for his own death. Once he has seen Christ, he seems to be at such peace that even death is not unwelcome. It reminds me of our prayer to have ‘a Christian ending to our lives.’ It speaks to having become a real Being.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It speaks of “fullness…” “Full of days…”

  9. Simon Avatar

    I see your point. I think it would be callous–or even stupid–to imply that we could be at peace with a child’s death. But, I was thinking more in terms of if it was possible to “develop” a character such that one’s mortality is no longer threatening. But, that could be missing the point.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The story of St. Simon the Elder is really interesting as hagiography goes. He was, it is said, one of the translators of the LXX. And when he came to the question of how to translate “Alma” (young maiden or virgin), he hesitated. An angel told him that it should be “virgin.” And it was in that encounter that he was promised that he would see the Lord’s salvation before his death. And he was said to be 360 years old at the time of the encounter in the Temple. So…he would not only have been old – but pretty tired by that time.

    I will not comment on the historical problems associated with that hagiography – but it is still fodder for meditation. At a certain point 70 or 80 can feel like 360. It is the story of an old man. So, your thoughts do not miss the point at all!

  11. Kenneth Avatar

    The wonders of Orthodoxy never cease to amaze me and warm my heart. Thank you for teaching us about Candlemas and its connection with Groundhog Day.

  12. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I echo Cindy: The corners you illumine never cease to amaze me. Thanks for that!

    Also, the same-named movie is one of my favorites. The real beauty of it is the double vision. It’s just a fun movie for some, while it is an eternal tale explaining this life for others.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, one of the best “fear reducers” when it comes to death is the blessing of the Commendation of the Dying or “Last Rites”.
    Both my wife and I experienced great blessings from such prayers as our late spouses lay dying.
    In my case our priest and two fellow parishioners prayed earnestly and for hours, the Commendation of the Dying as her Guardian Angel prayed with her.

    In my wife’s case, she preformed a believers Baptism on her comatose husband. He jerked awake and was even able to briefly communicate again before slipping back into his final coma.

    As Shakespeare said: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    And so it is for all of us, perhaps even for the most Holy. Not long after her husband died she received a message from her late husband, or perhaps an angel, because she visited his grave every day in tears: “Stop grieving for me! I am fine. I am sending you someone who will love you”
    So, barely two years after his death we met. After three dates and less than three months, we married.

    My wife frequently says: “Our spouses died in the same hospital, on the same floor, the same date, 2 years apart.

    Isaiah 41:10-11

    A pertinent example of “Seeds from a mysterious world.”

  14. Simon Avatar

    Hi, Michael. I wouldn’t think of it as fear so much as it is the telos of a human life. On the one hand, life isn’t static, there is no in-zone. On the other hand, there is also this idea of entering God’s rest. And the scriptures do not indicate that you move in and out of God’s rest and the tradition does say that there is such a thing as returning to our original stability. Maybe it’s the wrong question. Certainly grounding one’s life in the eucharist has a sense of finality about it.

  15. Simon Avatar

    Reflecting on it I have to say that Orthodox baptism had a finality about it as well. I was baptized three times prior to that. And at any given time there was always a nagging doubt about their validity. But after my baptism into the Orthodox church all such thoughts disappeared and there have been times recently where I cling to four things: The perceived permanence of my baptism, having taken communion, the Jesus prayer, and my priest saying my name. Identity has been a struggle and frankly I take more confidence in his affirmation than I do my own.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For other readers, I will note that there are cases in which being received by Baptism into the Church (rather than by Chrismation) is the right thing to do. The manner of being received varies, with the blessing of the Bishop being the authoritative thing.

  17. Simon Avatar

    I just realized that all of the four things I listed above are about how I understand myself and my identity. I wonder if the biggest deceit is we’ve experienced is the obscuring of human identity. It gets lost in the weeds so to speak.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s some complexity, no doubt. Becoming fully and truly human is inherent in what God is doing in us. So – it’s “everything.”

  19. M E Avatar
    M E

    I used to wonder when Candle-mass was. It was an important feast in the Mediaeval Church and appears in novels. I wonder if the Puritans suppressed it in England because they did not like the festive atmosphere of candles in churches. or was it the expense.? Beeswax being more expensive than the tallow candles from mutton carcases or the rush lights of the country people .
    But perhaps Candlemass had died out before their time in England. I wonder how things went in Germany and Geneva? Puritans and light don’t seem to go together
    A candle before an icon can be a light which makes us aware of the persons imaged there.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Unable to go to sleep, I reread this posting and the comments. Prayer and contemplation seems to either brings sleep or restored much like sleep.

    I began with what happens to the candle in order to produce light? It is gradually destroyed. Applying that to myself, I asked if I want to have spiritual light in myself what must be destroyed,? Sin.
    How is sin destroyed in me so that I might shine as the candles? Through repentance and acts of mercy.
    In the process of contemplation the bodily and spiritual pain that led me into the contemplation has begun to resolve and recede. Yet at the same time a forest appeared that I must explore if I am to attain any actual understanding. But it seems I may enter the realm of sleep after all knowing that I have an adventure prepared for me by God and not alone. Joy is present with the possibility of flowering in abundance if I follow where God leads, as God leads with my brothers as God has brought us together. All because of candles and hedgehogs.

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