Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Groundhogs, Pagans and Saints: From Groundhog Day to Imbolc to St. Brigid

There's a song I use at almost every performance that has a verse about groundhogs. Once, while telling at a state park, a gentleman came up and wanted to talk about groundhogs.

He said, “You ever eat groundhog?”

“No sir,” I told him, “I can’t say I ever have.”

“You sure about that?” he asked.

“Pretty sure,” I said.

“Well, I’m betting you have,” he said. “Not only that, I bet you’ve ate it more than once.”

“I don’t think so,” I assured him.

He grinned at me and asked, “You ever ate sausage? What’s that but ground hog?”

Groundhogs are good for other things too--like making a banjo head ( although the sound isn't very good, so I hear) or cutting the hide into strips for shoe laces.

Brian Fox Ellis has a good groundhog story on his website.

Urban Legends offers a wealth of links to more groundhog information that most of us are interested in reading.

If you prefer print media, Don Yoder's well-researched book Groundhog Day provides the European background of the holiday, along with weather folklore and much more.

February 2nd is also known as Candlemas Day (a Catholic holy day), Imbolc (to the early pagans) and it is Brigid's day (later transformed from a celebration of the Celtic fertility goddess Brigid to the feast day of St. Bridgid or Bridget on February 1). Both of these have their own celebrations and rituals far removed from the groundhog.

Candlemas Day is the celebration of the purification ceremony for Mary 40 days after the birth of Christ. It is celebrated by many with the lighting of candles. It is also one of the traditional days for taking down the Christmas decorations (January 6th is another) so if you're still putting it off, you have a good reason for it!

Brigid's day was commemorated with rituals to encourage fertility in the fields, and was considered to be the first day of spring in Ireland. Farmers soaked bread with cider or spirits and buried it in a turned furrow; signs of Spring could be found even though winter still held a grip--lambs might be born, sprigs of green might be found in the gardens.

In County Kildare, you can visit Brigid's well, one of over 3000 holy wells that once existed in Ireland. If you can't visit Dave Walsh offers a slide show of his photos online. Like our Vietnam Veterans memorial, visitors leave offerings of all kinds at the well.

Many poems and ancient tales of Brigid are collected on Conrad Bladey's site; Conrad offers information from his years of research on all topics Irish. At Chalicecentre, this poem is cited without a source:

Brighid's Arrow:
Most Holy Brighid, Excellent Woman, Bright Arrow, Sudden Flame;May your bright fiery Sun take us swiftly to your lasting kingdom.

The name Brigid (also spelled (Brigit or Brighid) is said to mean "fiery arrow" by many sources. In some parts of Ireland, small effigies of her are carried house to house, much like Wassailing, and small coins and oatcakes are given to the groups. Other sources give the meaning of her name as "exalted one," and cite her as the goddess of fire, poetry and wisdom.

For more about St. Brigid, Anna Egan Smucker's book is an excellent and beautifully illustrated source. I will post a review soon--I gave a copy to a friend last year, and now my copy is on order!

Other good sources:

Candlemas: Feast of Flames by Amber K provides information about the name, the legends and mythology in a well-written article.

Background about St. Brigid's cross is offered on Cross and Crucifix.

You can learn to make a cross on YouTube, from an Irishwoman who gives great instructions and clearly displayed.

Of course there is customary food to celebrate Brigid's Day! Colcannon, Oaten Cake and Boxty Cakes are offered at along with more information and lore about Brigid.

Here is the recipe for oaten cakes from that website:

St. Brigid's Oatcakes (serves 4)

2 cups uncooked, old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

2 1/2 cups sifted bread flour1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder1 teaspoon salt

Vegetable oil spray

A day ahead, combine the oats and buttermilk in a small bowl.
Blend thoroughly, cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Remove the oat mixture from the refrigerator.

Combine the bread flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Slowly add the oat mixture and stir with a wooden spoon 20 to 30 times, or until you have a smooth dough.

Grease a baking sheet with the oil spray. Turn the dough onto the baking sheet, and use your hands to form a round, cake-shaped loaf about 1-inch thick. Use a sharp knife or pizza cutter to cut the dough into 4 quarters.
Move the quarters apart slightly, but keep them in the original round shape.

Bake until the cakes are light golden brown and firm to the touch, 30 to 35 minutes.

Cool slightly on a rack, and serve with butter and jam or preserves. Makes 1 loaf (in quarters).

I started with the groundhog and traveled to the holy ground of Brigid. This seems to happen frequently when I begin to wonder about a bit of folklore that I took for granted--looking for the history behind these things is a fascinating journey.

There is still time, if you are so minded, to prepare a different kind of celebration for February 2. Instead of waiting around on a media-blitzed groundhog, why not light your home with candles, clean your hearth and start a new fire, make some oaten cake, and go outside to see if perhaps the crocus and snowdrops are peeking through the snow?

(Note: This is post #1100 for this blog. I didn't realize I'd written so many.)


Matthew Burns said...

Reckon we have all ate ground hog when it is put like that!!lol.

Real, rodent groundhog is very greasy. My granddad used to tell stories about how groundhog was so in demand when he was a kid that when someone spotted a groundhog in a field, kids and young men would grab up shovels and picks and dig it out of its hole just so they could have groundhog for supper! I can imagine what the groundhog was thinking as the digging got closer to it! My great-uncle Jess loved groundhog so much that even after he moved to Baltimore and made a really good living, when he'd return to the mountain he'd always want Grandmaw Mary to make him groundhog. She'd hand him a gun and say if you kill it I'll clean it and fry it for you. This went on for years and years, Grandmaw never would let anyone else kill a groundhog for Uncle Jess either, she said that while he never said it, she always suspected he liked hunting for groundhog as much as he liked eating it.

Your post reminds me of the old song my Granddad used to sing and taught to us kids, "Here comes Sal with a snicker and a grin, groundhog grease from her navel to her chin...Groundhog...Whistlepig!" I've seen this song in books too but the words are always a little different, which as we all know, is the true mark of a folksong.


City Mouse said...

These holidays sound so neat and steeped in the ages. It's a shame for folks don't know about this stuff. I copied the oat cakes recipe, and I'm going to try it for the holiday.

Jaime said...

Wow! 1100, its amazing but you do have a lot to share.

I loved the how to video and I had that childish giggle as she told the man that was filming that she was surprised he was having so much trouble because he's usually so good with his hands. *snicker, snicker*

Awesome blog of all the reason's why Feb. 2nd has been celebrated in the past. thanks for not forgetting anyone.

Laura said...

You can also celebrate Bonza Bottler Day on Feb. 2:

We've come to enjoy our monthly gatherings of friends.

Bonnie said...

This is great! February 2nd is my daughter's B-day and I can't wait to share this with her. We might have to have sausage on her birthday.

Back home we always called the ground hog a " Whistle Pig" . We would see them standing on their hind legs in the hay fields whistling their warnings.
Funny how the groundhog has so many stories and traditions attached to it. Thanks

Granny Sue said...

We call it a whistlepig too, Bonnie. The song I use for storytelling refers to it that way--which provides an opportunity for all sorts of audience interaction.

I hope you have a fun birthday celebration!

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