Jan 31, 2023
“You are not Joey...there are no magic kingdoms in your future. No, you are face-to-face with the darkest days of winter.”
December 25, Christmas Day. We’ve been looking forward to it for months and it didn’t disappoint: presents and ribbons and trees and presents, Mall Santa and Real Santa and carols and cookies, and…did I mention presents?
Later that afternoon, since you’ve successfully resisted your spouse’s (or parent’s) repeated pleas to help clean up, you find yourself with nothing to do. In fact, you’re bored…bored on Christmas! Is that even a thing? While you’re speculating on the metaphysics of boredom, you happen to look out the window…
And it’s dark, real dark, the windowpane’s ice cold. The ground is frozen solid, if not snow covered, and you suddenly realize you have nothing to look forward to now until spring (Easter) – not like Joey across the street whose parents take him skiing every weekend and whose grandparents are taking him to Disney World in February.
You are not Joey! (How often do you have to remind yourself of that each year?) No, you do not have to face ski lodges, hot cider and cocoa, and there are no magic kingdoms in your future. No, you are face-to-face with the darkest days of winter.
Poor you! You happen to live in a liturgically impoverished culture. We celebrate just four points on the calendar: the two solstices (c. 6/21 and 12/21), days of maximum (or minimum) daylight; and the two equinoxes (c. 3/21 and 9/21), days when the durations of light and dark are equal.
Think of that! At equinox, no matter where you live on the globe, north or south, pole or equator, the sun rises at 6 AM and sets at 6 PM (adjusted for the modern convention of time zones). It’s a marvelous thing. But I digress…
Like most cultures, we cluster our important religious and secular holidays around the times of these astronomical extremes; we call them Christmas, Easter, Midsommer (July 4th), and various ‘early harvest’ festivals. But none of this relieves the tedium of long cold winters.
Had you been born into a liturgically richer culture, you might be celebrating eight points on the calendar rather than just four. Many cultures recognize what we call Cross Days as major feasts. Cross Days occur, roughly, on the days that bisect the four intervals between solstice and equinox.
Although our culture doesn’t recognize these Cross Days as ‘major feasts’, their shadows are still all around us. Halloween, for example, bisects the fall equinox and the winter solstice. Similarly, May Day in the spring. The remaining axis (2/1 and 8/1) is a bit more problematic.
Lammas Day, August 1, is celebrated in the Celtic and Jewish traditions. February 2 is celebrated in Celtic tradition as Imbolc (Lambs’ Day, also St. Brigid’s Day), in Christian tradition as Candlemas (the presentation of Jesus in the temple), and in secular tradition as Groundhog Day.
You know the story. The groundhog emerges from his hole and assesses prospects for the coming weeks. If he sees his shadow, then it’s back underground for another six weeks of winter; but if he doesn’t, then get ready for an early spring.
Call it what you will, February 2 is a pivot point in the celestial calendar. It occurs right in the middle of the darkest, coldest period in the North American almanac. It is a time when hope is in short supply. We need something to keep us going. (Teacher friends of mine say that February is by far the hardest month for class management.)
Are we there yet? No, but we are halfway. February 2 marks the end of the end and the beginning of the beginning. If nothing else, it delivers a psychological boost. We’re desperate for good news. We hope that the Groundhog will deliver but, if not, we’ve still enjoyed his festival.