Jesus and Groundhog Day

            I love the movie Groundhog Day. It’s such a great story about redemption, and I for one, an accomplished bumbler, would love a few do-overs to get things right. Besides, the film’s hilarious. I might have guessed that it would have some sort of religious theme to it, but until recently, I didn’t imagine that Punxsutawney Phil and Jesus share that auspicious day… and not by mere coincidence. Groundhog Day is exactly forty days after Christmas Eve, and Jewish religious tradition required that certain things happen forty days after a boy’s birth. Those traditions, together with ancient legends, ultimately led to the connection of that cheeky little varmint with the Christian “light of the world.”

            Forty, of course, is a significant biblical number. Think: forty day Flood, forty years of wilderness wandering. In the New Testament, right after the most famous Christmas story — Luke’s (the one with the shepherds in it), the author explains that forty days after Jesus was born Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple in Jerusalem. They made the trip for two related reasons, both of which sound odd to our ears. They went to mark the end of Mary’s uncleanness and to reclaim Jesus from God. Yeah, I know. Mary, the chaste, unclean?! And why would Jesus’ parents have to get him back from God?

            Jewish tradition dictated that giving birth to a boy made a woman ritually unclean for forty days (longer for girl babies). After that, to complete her purification, she was supposed to offer to God a lamb and a pigeon, or only two pigeons if she was especially poor. That’s just the way it was, according to the religiously binding instructions of Torah. As for Jesus, because he was his parents’ first baby, he belonged not to them strictly speaking but to God. That tradition goes back to the exodus from Egypt, when God spared the Hebrew firstborn while killing the Egyptians’. So, all firstborn belonged to God. God made allowance for parents to “buy back” (the word used is usually “redeem”) the child by giving a token sum of money.

            So, even under normal circumstances, this would have been a big day. The young family presented themselves in God’s house. Mary was purified and Jesus, in his first public appearance, was reclaimed from God to be an ordinary Jewish boy. Or not so ordinary. Luke adds that an old man and an old woman in the temple each recognized something astonishing and unique about Jesus — that he would bring salvation to others. February 2, then, is remembered among Christians as the “Purification of the Virgin” and the “Presentation of Christ in the Temple.” It’s also called “Candelmas,” which gets us closer to the groundhog. This purification of Mary and presentation of Jesus became occasion for the annual blessing of beeswax candles, hence the “Candle Mass.”

            And Candelmas falls at the time of the ancient Gaelic festival of Imbolc (“sheep’s milk”), dedicated to the goddess (later Christian saint) Brigid, who is associated among other things with fire and healing… and by extension, purification. Legends tell of Saint Brigid as a compassionate helper to the new mother Mary and as carrying candles in front of Mary as she walked to the temple for purification.

            Candelmas, which used to be counted as the end of the Christmas season, marked a turning-point in winter. Ancient Armenian Christians predicted future weather based on the direction of smoke from churchyard fires on that day. If the day dawns clear and bright, according to a British tradition, harsh winter days still lie ahead; but if it’s cloudy, winter’s coming to an end. People would watch for serpents or other hibernating animals to emerge and so determine how long winter would last. Germans said that if a badger saw his shadow on Candelmas, he’d head for his den and you could expect winter to rage for four to six more weeks. In Pennsylvania, where many Germans settled, it was groundhogs that one might see. So it was that on February 2 in 1886, a Punxsutawney newspaper editor first wrote “Today is groundhog day…” For some Eastern Christians who celebrate Jesus’ birth on Epiphany (January 6), Candelmas falls on February 14. But that’s another story, and I’m still waiting for Bill Murray to take on Valentine’s Day.

Comments

  1. Cecile swenson says:

    It was fun to read about Ground Hog Day and the connection to Jesus through the number forty. Also, that it was a badger who first predicted spring. Thank you for the info.

  2. Cecile swenson says:

    This is my second time on this comment. Hope it goes thru. It was fun to read about Ground Hog day and how it can be connected to Jesus through the number forty. Also that it was the badger who first predicted when spring would return. Thank you for the information.

  3. I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have never heard anyone make the correlation between Jesus and Groundhog Day. There are so many biblical, historical, and church traditions that I don’t think I will ever stop learning something.

  4. This blog really opened my eyes. The connection between Jesus and Groundhog Day was quite true. Loved reading your blog! Great job! 🙂

  5. It absolutely was entertaining to learn concerning Soil Hog Evening as well as the connection to Jesus from the amount 40 dollars. Furthermore, which it has been any badger which initial expected early spring. Many thanks for your details.

  6. Blog muy bueno. Incluso a mí también este blog me abrió los ojos. La conexión entre Jesús y el Día de la Marmota era del todo cierto. muy bien!

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