Marmots, St. Brigid, and Candlemas

Marmots, St. Brigid, and Candlemas

Detail: Savoyard avec une marmotte (Wandering Performer with a Marmot [Marmota marmota]).
Antoine Watteau, c.1716 (color enhanced — Pardonnez-moi, M. Watteau).

Today (February 2nd) is the “cross-quarter day” which marks “Midwinter,” the half-way point between the winter solstice and vernal equinox,  the Celtic Imbolc and Chinese lìchūn (立春) when peoples of the Northern Hemisphere eagerly observe the slightest signs of spring.

The Catholic and Anglican churches observe the day, informally known as “Candlemas,” in commemoration of Mary’s ritual purification forty days after giving birth and the day she presented Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem (the Eastern Rite celebrates this as well, but on a different date). St. Brigid of Kildare, a founder of Irish Christianity, is celebrated on February 1st; her legend has merged with a Celtic goddess of that name, an analog of Persephone.

On the popular level, traditions of earlier religions became associated with Candlemas, chief among them divination or prognostication of the severity of the last half of winter according to the behavior of hibernating marmots, the large burrowing ground squirrels known in America as woodchucks, groundhogs, and whistlepigs. Ireland apparently has no marmots but it does have the insectivous hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus), which hibernate; guess what they do on St. Brigid’s Day. Hibernation is not coma; it is a period of reduced activity, and animals do wake up and snack before resuming their seasonal drowse. That’s how the “seeing his shadow” jazz comes about — and it didn’t originate in Punxsutawney, it’s from old Europe.

Marmot and Groundhog

Our North American  groundhog (Mormota monax) is so plentiful it is regarded as a “varmint” or pest, but Western Europe’s Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota) is threatened due to loss of habitat and over-hunting for it’s fur and meat (use of groundhog fat as liniment originated in Europe as well). Marmots have recently been re-introduced in many areas of Europe, accounting for all the dancing and yodeling marmots seen on the web. Watteau’s young itinerant musician used his marmot in outdoor performances, probably to gather his tips — the critters easily become beggars.

There are other traditional ways to forecast the remaining winter weather today. An English folk rhyme (there are Scottish and Appalachian versions) predicts:

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Come, Winter, have another flight
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

So groundhogs are optional, but they sure are cute.

Happy Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Day, Groundhog’s Day, Imbolc, and lìchūn. And if you’re celebrating Groundhog’s Day, don’t eat too much stew.


Note: I haven’t read Don Yoder’s book which starts with Punxsutawney and explores weather customs, but here’s an excerpt here.

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5 Responses to “Marmots, St. Brigid, and Candlemas”

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