Monday, January 30, 2006


I was reading something about Celtic spirituality and noticed again that St. Brigid’s Day is celebrated on February 2nd. That’s also Groundhog Day. Oh, how interesting! So, I did some looking around to find out more. It is not – as I had assumed – a coincidence that they are on the same day.

Groundhog Day comes but once a year, celebrated in the US and Canada, always on February 2nd,, with no Monday transference since it’s not a holiday. As immigrants populated Pennsylvania in the 1700s, they began to hold celebrations brought with them from the old country. In Germany, they had watched a badger for seeing his shadow, but Pennsylvania’s closest kin to a badger was a groundhog, so for predictions of spring they now watched a groundhog.

The custom, which became formalized in the US by 1841, is that when the designated groundhog emerges from his den on that auspicious day, if he sees his shadow (that is, if it’s sunny), there will be six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy and he doesn’t, then spring is just around the corner.

For most of us, the best known groundhog prognosticator is Punxsutawney Phil, of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Purists would have it that he is the “real” and only official spring-predicting groundhog. But there are other little furry woodchucks (Marmota monax) who claim the status, too.

In the US:
Punxsutawney Phil - Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
General Beauregard Lee - Atlanta, Georgia
Sir Walter Wally - Raleigh, North Carolina
Pee Wee - Mile Square, Vermont
Birmingham Bill - Birmingham, Alabama
Holland Huckleberry - Huckleberry, Ohio
Connecticut Chuckles – Manchester, Connecticut
Cloudy - Brookfield Zoo, Chicago
Pierre C. Shadeaux (the Cajun Groundhog) - New Iberia, Louisiana
Dixie Dan, Papa's Rainbow Farm, Mississippi
Octorara Orphie – Quarryville, in Eastern PA
Unadilla Bill - Unadilla, NE, "Groundhog Capital of Nebraska"
Metompkin Max - the Eastern Shore of Virginia (aka, the Delmarva peninsula)
Staten Island Chuck from the Staten Island Zoo, NY
Buckeye Chuck - Marion, Ohio,
French Creek Freddie - French Creek, West Virginia
Jimmy the Groundhog – “the OFFICIAL Groundhog from the one and only OFFICIAL Groundhog Capital of the World! Sun Prairie, Wisconsin”

And in Canada:
Wiarton Willie - Warton, Ontario,Canada (an albino groundhog, with white fur and pink eyes)
Shubenacadie Sam - Shubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park (pronounced "Shoo-ben-ack-a-dee") near Halifax, Nova Scotia
Two Rivers Tunnel - Two Rivers Wildlife Park, Marion Bridge, NS

And undoubtedly, there must be more. People have too much fun with this!

Punxsutawney Phil's prognostications of spring have been correct only 39% of the time. Other groundhogs’ fans claim a perfect success rate, but I’m not ready to believe that.

I never questioned why groundhogs or why February 2nd. I had it all figured out, by assumption. Groundhogs are gentle little animals. They conveniently hibernate (and have a nice gentle emergence suited to a celebratory Coming-Out Party), and their birthing season begins in the early spring, making it necessary to terminate hibernation, emerge into the light and feed the family. Note: Light.

My reasoning was wrong. There’s more to it.

I am fascinated to find out that there is a link between Groundhog Day and Celtic spirituality. An ancient Celtic festival, the pagan celebration of Imbolc, the Day of Bride (aka Brigid, Brigit or Bridget), was on February 2nd. To the pre-Christian Celts, at this time of year the animal world began to stir from its winter sleep in the depths of earth, and life and light is ushered in by Brigid, the Queen. Light, again.

When Christianity gained sufficient foothold in Briton, the Church subsumed Imbolc, Christianizing it to celebrate the Purification of Mary, a handy 40 days after the birth of Jesus (December 25 to February 2 is 40 days). Actually, it used to be the Feast of the Circumcision, but we moderns are a bit squeamish about such, even though that’s what Scripture (Luke 2:25-40) describes, so we changed it to the Purification of Mary, which would have been the same day. And their being at the temple was the occasion of old Simeon proclaiming there that this baby was born to be “a light to lighten the gentiles.” Light, again.

This day is also called Candlemas, because an old Scripture reading for this festival contains the line (Zephaniah 1:12), "I will search Jerusalem with candles." So, on this day each member of the congregation carried a lighted candle in procession around the church, to be blessed by the priest. Candles: Light.

In Scotland an old couplet goes,
“If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
there'll be two winters in the year.”
Light, again.

From Germany:
“For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl in May..."
Light, again.

All of these -- Groundhog Day, Imbolc and Candlemas -- have to do with light and spring. Spring? Spring comes in mid-March, the 20th/21st,, not on February 2nd. Ah, but that is only on a calendar which begins the seasons as they relate to the equinoxes, the longest and shortest days of the year (the “Babylonian Seasons,”) which we use:
Spring begins March 20/21
Summer begins June 20/21
Autumn begins September 20/21
Winter begins December 21/22

As calculated by the Chinese, those are the midpoints of the seasons. On the Chinese calendar:
Spring begins February 3/4
Summer begins May 5/5
Autumn begins August 7/8
Winter begins November 6/7

Aha! With this calendar Groundhog Day is the day before spring: the ideal time for a prediction.

Obviously, following the weather-forecasting groundhogs, if they do not see their shadows and spring is fast upon us, we use the Chinese calendar of seasons, and if they see their little shadows and we’re in for six more weeks of winter, we switch to the Babylonian calendar of seasons.

But what would groundhogs or the ancient Celts know of Chinese and Babylonian calendars? I don’t know about the groundhogs, but for the Celts the Babylonian calendars are easier to trace. Originally, the Babylonian calendar was brought to northern Europe by the Romans.

It’s less likely that Chinese influence was brought to the Celts by soldiers or travelers. But we have some evidence of pre-Roman astronomy in Britain – the arrangement of stones at Stonehenge to observe events like the Solstices – so it may well be that the subsequent Celtic seasonal understanding, similar to the Chinese model, was devised by the old Celts themselves. That sounds reasonable, since there are surviving Celtic traditions (i.e., Irish and Gaelic) about Imbolc in February, Beltane in May, Lughnasadh in August, and Samhain in November, which coincide with the Chinese calendar of dates for beginning the seasons.

Are we ready for another possibility of independent thinkers in the mode of the Chinese seasonal calendar? There is speculation that some markings at the great Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico may suggest a corresponding interest in the mid-points between the Equinoxes and Solstices.

Ha! I love it! I love being freed from our static calendar that refuses to acknowledge the existence of an early spring. So, I shall join the groundhogs and according to the timing of spring, use both the Babylonian and Chinese formats – with a nod to the Celts and the Anaszi, of course. What fun! I’ll have a smile for all Groundhog Days to come!

Happy Groundhog Day, come February 2nd!

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Scientist Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star stuff.” I love that. I’ve loved the idea since I first heard it, some years ago.

Well, it makes sense. What else would we be made of but the basic elements that make up the universe? We are a part of creation, and actually, a pretty insignificant part. We’re vastly outnumbered by the insects, outsized by many mammals, reptiles and fish, raced into the ground by so many swift creatures that we can’t count them, and we can’t hold a candle to the beauty of a common violet sprung up in the back yard.

It’s laughable when we humans see ourselves as the “crowning glory” of creation. I wonder if it’s not more likely that we were an afterthought. But there is something special about us human animals, more special than our handy opposable thumbs, more impressive than our skills with language. I think it’s that we have a unique capacity for compassion. We can extend ourselves beyond self, for the good of another. We have that innate lightness of heart and soul that is an inborn gift, not dependent on one’s age, abilities, wealth or status.

Most of what I read about Sagan’s “star stuff” was way over my head, but I came upon a description of DNA as giving off light, and shedding more light when it was unwound. The author describes that swirl of light as functioning as a “tuning fork” for the body, striking a species-specific frequency to which all the body’s cells align.

Stars are made of the basic elements, and stars give off light. If we are indeed made of star stuff, I’d like to think that the light in our DNA is starlight, that the light of the universe is within us.

May starlight shine in all of us and give us hope.

Friday, January 27, 2006


It’s still the dead of winter, but I’m thinking spring. I ordered seeds today. Yep, that’ll do it. I got a few herbs for my tiny little herb box: Lemon Balm, Coriander/Cilantro, Dark Green Italian Parsley (to be joined later by Pineapple Sage from a local nursery), and for the edges of my garden box (in which I already have four varieties of raspberries), Parsnips. Last year it was carrots. I think I’ll like the parsnips even better; according to the seed catalog, parsnips can winter over and will be fine in the spring. Yum!

I don’t do all that well growing plants from seeds. I’m pretty good about planting and watering (although I’m just a little heavy-handed with the water). I’m even good at waiting for the tiny little leaflets to break the surface and catch their first light. But thinning is so painful! I know that in order to grow healthy, strong plants, a good many of the nearby little sprigs need to be ruthlessly pulled up. It’s almost enough to make one weep.

I didn’t realize one had to be courageous to be a gardener. When you think of it though, gardening develops a lot of traits of strong character: wisdom, knowledge, a sense of timing, self discipline, responsibility, attentiveness, faithfulness, sensitivity, perseverance. I suspect that many a philosopher, teacher and theologian has been grown in a garden. What an unexpected crop!

Thursday, January 26, 2006


As a little child, I moved with my family to the coast of New Jersey. I’m retired now, a landlubber, but that early love of the sea has stayed with me. So, I start this blog as a means to reflect on life, the world, nature – anything that catches my fancy. And I suspect my thoughts will leave a trail somewhat resembling the spoor of a starfish.

The starfish has five rays – or arms or legs, if you will – or it may have four or six or nine, or even twenty-some, but mostly, five. Each ray has not one, but hundreds of tiny tube feet. So the trail left by a meandering starfish is a delicate path of tiny squiggles. Wind and waves easily erase the trail of a starfish, and nothing remains to mark its passing.

So it is for most of us humans, that the progress along our paths through life doesn’t leave much of an indelible impression. Nonetheless, the world is – or can be – a richer, finer place because of our being here. We don’t have to find a medical cure, or conquer poverty, or do something earth-shaking. We only need to give off the light and warmth of our love, wherever we are, however long that might be. Even the tiniest little bit of love’s light and warmth is enough to make the world a friendlier place.

Like the starfish, we don’t leave such a remarkable trail, but we don’t have to. Delight isn’t in the spoor; it’s in the starfish.