In the US we have this crazy thing called Ground Hog Day. You know, the day when the furry little rodent pops out of his cozy Winter hideaway to have a look see. If he sees his shadow on the morning of February 2nd he heads right back down and hits the snooze for another 6 weeks. And that’s exactly what happened this morning! 6 more weeks of Winter! I had high hopes this year because I haven’t seen the sun in several weeks…but wouldn’t you know it, the day the ground hog is supposed to pop out, here comes the sun!
It was interesting to discover that the origin of Ground Hog Day is surrounded by a long history of traditions, folklore and legends, having been originally celebrated in Europe. The German tradition called for a hedgehog (some sources I found said badger) to look for his shadow on February 2nd, a day referred to as Candlemas Day. In other cultures it was simply believed that the remainder of the winter would be exactly the opposite of whatever it was like on Candlemas Day. How the ground hog got mixed up in all this, I’m not exactly sure.
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.” English Rhyme
“A shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than see the sun shine.” German Saying
Candlemas is a Christian celebration of commemorating the purification of Mary. Under Jewish law, the purification was to occur 40 days following the birth of a child. In addition it also commemorates the presentation of the infant Christ to be consecrated to God in the temple. At that time, Simeon spoke these words, proclaiming that Jesus is the light of the world. This prayer is now known as the Nunc Dimittis.
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
The name, Candlemas, comes from the Christian ritual of bringing candles to church to be blessed and reminding them that Jesus is the light in the darkness.
There is some thought that Candlemas has roots in pagan traditions. Others believe that it is simply coincidental that it falls at the same time as the pagan feast known as Imbolc which falls halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. Imbolc, also a festival of lights, symbolizes hope and celebrates lighter and warmer days ahead.
Other folklore tells that Christmas decorations must be removed by Candlemas Day or bad luck (death) would befall the household. Rest assured, my Christmas decorations have long since been packed away!
Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
English Poet, Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
A Polish tradition has it that on this day, called Matki Boskiej Gromnicznej, translated as Mother of God of the Thunder Candle, candles are brought to the church to be blessed. The candles are called thunder candles because they are kept in the home to be used to protect the home from lightning during thunderstorms. The blessed candles are also lit at the bedside of the dying to protect the individual from Satan, and to light the way to heaven.
There are many paintings that depict Mary walking through the snow with wolves at her feet and carrying a large candle. The Polish believed that she was protecting homes and farm animals from packs of hungry wolves (evil).
A symbol of Candlemas is the snowdrop. It represents hope, endurance and the light of things to come. Snowdrops are known by many names such as Candlemas Bells, Christ’s Flower, Death’s Flower, Dew-drops, Dingle-Dangle, Mary’s Taper, Naked Maiden, Purification Flower, Snow-piercer and more!
Typically the snowdrop blooms prior to February 2 however, yet another folklore warns of picking and bringing the flowers into the house prior to Candlemas. You wouldn’t want bad luck to befall you but if you waited until Candlemas, the snowdrops would bring hope, light, purification and ward off bad spirits.
An English legend entitled “How the Snowdrop Became,” tells how the snowdrop became a symbol of hope and endurance. The story describes how an angel turned falling snowflakes into snowdrops to give Adam and Eve as a sign of hope before evicting them from the Garden of Eden.
How the Snowdrop Became
“It was the eve of Brighid’s Day when he at last agreed to go down to the earth once again. As he plummeted towards the garden – the promised place – he felt ice crystals in the air, saw the stars far above glitter with frozen light.
Landing lightly on the grass, fragile with frost, he could see them. They stood close together, shivering despite the coverings contrived from feathers and weeds which hung from waists and shoulders, arms raised to protect frightened eyes from his light.
He spread his monumental wings, stepping towards them –
“The Creator says you must leave this place, it is no longer yours as a privilege.”
Giving them no time to wonder or delay, the sheer magical strength of him compelled them to move – descending the unfamiliar path towards all that was unknown, nameless, outside.
Watching the two, hand in hand, heads bowed with tears, he noticed the first snow drifting like thistledown through the silence of the night. Deep sorrow he felt for them and stretched out a hand. Snowflakes gathered in his palm, hexagonal wonders, showing no sign of thawing there. Bringing them closer to his mouth, he breathed a sigh over their perfection. As the crystals were touched with the breath, each turned to a three petalled flower white as the snowflake that had birthed it. Each drooped its head, hiding the touch of fresh, soft green at its heart.
“Take a sign of hope,” he called, “a sign for your kind and for the earth outside.”
As they moved towards the gap in the stone wall, he threw the snowdrops in a halo shower around their heads. They walked on unawares, taking the little blessing with them.”
The English poet, George Wilson, wrote “Origin of the Snowdrop” describing the same tale.
Origin of the snowdrop
No fading flowers in Eden grew,
Nor Autumn’s withering spread
Among the trees a browner hue,
To show the leaves were dead;
But through the groves and shady dells,
Waving their bright immortal bells,
Were amaranths and asphodels,
Undying in a place that knew
A golden age the whole year through.
But when the angel’s fiery brands,
Guarding the eastern gate,
Told of a broken law’s commands,
And agonies that came too late;
With longing, lingering wish to stay,
And many a fond but vain delay
That could not wile her grief away,
Eve wandered aimless o’er a world
On which the wrath of God was hurled.
Then came the Spring’s capricious smile,
And Summer sunlight warmed the air,
And Autumn’s riches served a while
To hide the curse that lingered there;
Till o’er the once untroubled sky
Quick driven clouds began to fly,
And moaning zephyrs ceased to sigh,
When Winter’s storms in fury burst
Upon a world indeed accurst,
And when at last the driving snow,
A strange, ill-omened sight,
Came whitening all the plains below,
To trembling Eve it seemed affright
With shivering cold and terror bowed
As if each fleecy vapour cloud
Were falling as a snowy shroud,
To form a close enwrapping pall
For Earth’s untimeous funeral.
Then all her faith and gladness fled,
And, nothing left but black despair.
Eve madly wished she had been dead,
Or never born a pilgrim there.
But, as she wept, an angel bent
His way adown the firmament,
And, on a task of mercy sent,
He raised her up, and bade her cheer
Her drooping heart, and banish fear;
And catching, as he gently spake,
A flake of falling snow,
He breathed on it, and bade it take
A form and bud and blow;
And ere the flake had reached the earth,
Eve smiled upon the beauteous birth,
That seemed, amid the general dearth
Of living things, a greater prize
Than all her flowers in Paradise.
“This is an earnest, Eve, to thee,”
The glorious angel said,
“That sun and Summer soon shall be;
And though the leaves seem dead,
Yet once again the smiling Spring,
With wooing winds, shall swiftly bring
New life to every sleeping thing;
Until they wake, and make the scene
Look fresh again, and gaily green.”
The angel’s mission being ended,
Up to Heaven he flew;
But where he first descended,
And where he bade the earth adieu,
A ring of snowdrops formed a posy
Of pallid flowers, whose leaves, unrosy,
Waved like a winged argosy,
Whose climbing masts above the sea,
Spread fluttering sail and streamer free.
And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky.
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh;
That circling seasons, in a race
That knows no lagging, lingering pace,
Shall each the other nimbly chase,
Till Time’s departing final day
Sweep snowdrops and the world away.
George Wilson (1818–59).
In 1753, Carl Linnaeus scientifically classified the snowdrop as Galanthus nivalis. Galanthus is from the Greek words gala, meaning “milk,” and anthos, meaning “flower.” Nivalis means “of the snow”. This small bulb plant, green and white, symbolizes Spring’s arrival, new hope, and lasting endurance.
Snowdrops prefer cold climates, growing best in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8. They enjoy full sun to partial shade blooming between late winter and early spring. They will flourish while there is still snow on the ground and a dusting of snow will not bother them at all. It’s fun to think of the German folklore that explains why this is so. The legend claims that when God created everything on earth, he asked all the flowers to share some of their color to the snow. One by one the flowers said no. The snow then asked a snowdrop to give her some of its color and it accepted. The snow then rewarded the snowdrop by letting it bloom first.
Snowdrops like a neutral to slightly alkaline soil pH and rich but well drained soil. Plant bulbs three to five inches apart and two about inches deep. They are at their best planted in large groupings or rock gardens. Eventually, established clumps may be divided. So plant some snowdrops and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful blooms in February!
For more information on Snowdrops, click here University of Wisconsin Master Gardeners-Snowdrops
Last but not least, it’s important to wear gloves when handling the bulbs as it’s possible to get a skin irritation from contact with the bulbs. All parts of the snowdrop are toxic if ingested.
“Alluding to the colour of the flowers.
The snow-drop, Winter’s timid child,
Awakes to life bedew’d with tears;
And flings around its fragrance mild,
And where no rival flowrets bloom,
Amidst the bare and chilling gloom,
A beauteous gem appears!”
–THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS (1839)
So there you have it, a long tale of ground hogs, religious celebrations, pagan feasts and winter flowers. Thankfully the days are getting longer, the temperature warmer and I have hope that I’ll soon be back in the garden. And even if I have six more weeks of winter to deal with, I know that, thanks to the snowdrops and the ground hog, Spring is definitely on it’s way!
Sources and more information: