In a word

candlemas

 

It was a debate whether to consider two words today, both related to February 2nd. Or just ignore one. But Conor Pope sits across from me and insists on value for readers. So . . .

I had never heard of Groundhog Day before the 1993 film of that name. On the other hand Candlemas Day has been part of Irish heritage since before time. Both, however, mark that midpoint between the December solstice and March’s equinox. In old Ireland it was seen as the first day of spring. Indeed, it has been marked, since Roman times, as a celebration of winter turning to spring.

In the Christian calendar it marks the presentation of Jesus in the temple and his mother Mary’s purification. “Churching”, was what this would be called later. Many of the older mothers reading this column would have been through it. This was also the day that, traditionally, all the candles to be used in the church over the coming year were blessed. In Ireland people used to donate candles to their local church on this day or took their own to be blessed. These would be used on special occasions in the home, such as station Masses or when the dying were anointed.

It was also thought that the weather on Candlemas Day forecast that for the remainder of winter. If it was bright, the weeks ahead would be bleak. If stormy and wet, the worst weather was over. Pray that today is stormy and wet.

Candlemas is from the Old English candelmæsse, derived from the Latin candela, “a light, torch”. And mæsse, from the Latin missa , meaning “dismissal”. This is thought to have originated with the phrase “Ite missa est”, which ended the Latin Mass.

Celebrations of Goundhog Day in the US began as recently as the 18th century and occur mainly in Pennsylvania, where it originated with German immigrants. The story goes that if the groundhog, a squirrel-like creature found in North America, casts a shadow when it emerges from its burrow today, winter will last another six weeks. If not, spring will be early. From Old English grund, “bottom, foundation, surface of the earth,” plus hog, thought to have originated with the Celts, from such as the Cornish hoch, for pig or sow. First used in the US in the 1880s. inaword@irishtimes.com

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