Candlewax and Hedgehogs

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 an 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.

N.B. No animals were harmed in the writing of this article…

Photo by Yann Allegre on Unsplash

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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16 responses to “Candlewax and Hedgehogs”

  1. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Thank you for re-posting this true, beautiful and succinct article of yours, Fr. Stephen! We are blessed to be able to attend the Vesperal Liturgy with our church community this evening, included will be a blessing of candles. And we have purchased our own copy of the movie “Groundhog Day” to watch this weekend. Glory to God for All Things!

  2. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    Website comment: I assume the newsletter subscription pop-up is a limited time thing? I signed up but still get the pop-up every time I come to the site. Just asking.

  3. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    BTW Groundhog Day the movie was the basically father of time loop movies, just a fun fact.

    I think the whole thing was captured pretty succinctly by this quote from it:

    Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

    Ralph: That about sums it up for me.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Drewster,
    My web developer must have put it in. It pops up everytime for me. Is it annoying? At least it’s not an add for some obscure product. But – it’s a pretty minor annoyance, surely.

  5. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for the article. I think the furry creature in your photo is a marmot owning to its mountainous location. Marmots and groundhogs are cousins, both large squirrels. Marmots, though, can be real pests. They love gnawing on car engine wiring!
    We look forward to great vespers and litya this evening and liturgy at 6 a.m. tomorrow.
    Our priest teaches physics full-time, thus the early hour liturgy. Thank God for his dedication!

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dean,
    I think you’re right about the picture.

  7. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Wow lesson for the day! I had no idea about all you shared. Thank you! Very interesting to learn the history. I did not realize our candles were blessed at a special time either.

  8. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Father Stephen!

    My German wife knew nothing about Candlemas and only a little bit about Groundhog Day in the U.S. — she learned about Groundhog Day from the movie!! HA!

    It is interesting just how much even Christians in Germany are completely detached and unaware of their own spiritual traditions. Christi Himmelfahrt (Ascension Day), for example, is a holiday here. Many Germans have no idea what the holiday even means … other than a day off of work!

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    You live in what formerly E. Germany – where the Communist government would have encouraged secularization (and amnesia of traditions). I wonder, is it more secular there than in the former W. Germany? Modernity is equally at home with Communists and Capitalists – and gladly secular – except that Capitalism knows how to use religion for profit (as in the U.S).

  10. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I think religion is being used in capitalism for profit and politics. And that religion in politics is used for profit, benefiting an economic class.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    In a manner of speaking, politics and religion are inseparable and always have been. It’s not as obvious in “secular” countries only because their religion is secularism.

  12. Anne Avatar
    Anne

    Thank you father Stephen. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen ground hog day. I lost count. But I thank you for the real truth of this story.
    Anne p
    Much love

  13. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Well Fr. Stephen … East Germany is more secular and unbelieving (IMO) than the southern and western parts of the country. It is also the place where a lot of Protestant missionary outreach is happening and has been happening since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    Politics and religion seem to be inseparable … but should they be?

  14. Claudia Daniel Avatar
    Claudia Daniel

    Here is an enjoyable discussion about Ground Hog Day featuring Jonathan Pageau and Richard Rolin

  15. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    You are correct. The website pop-up is only a small annoyance. Definitely worth the price of admission. (wink)

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Drewster,
    Interestingly, I had people asking me, from time to time, how they could subscribe…when there’s a subscription thing on the sidebar. But, it was apparently not all that obvious. So, I asked my web developer to do something…and POP! they did!

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