A Midwinter Day’s Dream – Of Beasts, Baby Jesus, Candles and Corn

It is almost the end of January, and after a several-week-long hiatus, many gardeners in the Northern hemisphere (including myself) are getting the itch to start planning for their coming growing season.  I have a nice cup of tea next to my 2019 gardening catalogues, pencil, eraser and sticky notes (photo below); I am dreaming of what new seed varieties to try, creating a mental picture of them growing into healthy plants, and producing fresh food by the time my young cherry tree is in full bloom (seen bare in the photo above, left to my beloved pet).

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This and other midwinter yearnings for activity, such as “cabin fever”, might actually be related to the body’s natural response to the lengthening of daytime, which began after the winter solstice (the longest night of the year, December 21 for 2018).  The winter season ends with the spring equinox, so its total length is around 90 days (89 days for 2018-19); hence, the approximate midwinter day falls sometime at the beginning of February.  Many cultures have observed these and other seasonal events since ancient times, celebrating festivals dedicated to astronomical phenomena and their associated meteorological consequences. Celtic groups referred to midwinter days as the “quarter-cross days”, which were later adopted by the Romans as a time for purification and offerings to their gods, hoping for health and fertility in the coming spring; dies Februatus, as it was called, and later naming the month of February (Februarius), comes from februa, the purification instruments used by the Romans.  This celebration also marked the beginning of their agricultural season.

Other cultures have noticed wild animal responses related to midwinter weather changes, assigning value to the behaviour of beasts – such as badgers, bears, and foxes – to predict the arrival of an early spring.  The celebration of Groundhog Day on February 2 was an adaptation of European superstitions about beasts and weather forecasts for the second half of winter, starting with German communities in Pennsylvania in the 19th century; some of the first written accounts come from Morgantown and Punxsutawney.  The latter town has officially celebrated the prediction since 1887; Phil, a designated groundhog, comes out on February 2, and determines whether and early spring will soon begin by not seeing his shadow, or if winter weather will continue for six more weeks.  So far, Phil’s accuracy has been tabulated with a balance of “lower than random chance” accuracy, but remains popular, nevertheless. Canada has its own weather groundhogs, such as Nova Scotia’s “Shubenacadie Sam” and “Wiarton Willy” of Ontario, also with lower-than-chance success rates, but high in popularity.

In the late 4th century, shortly after December 25 was fixed as Christmas Day by the Roman Catholic Church, the second day of February was marked in the Christian calendar as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus and of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary since, according to Jewish tradition, a new mother must be purified, and present her new baby at the temple, forty days after the baby’s birth.  This date was easily accepted by new Christians in Rome, due to the correspondence to the already well-established dies Februatus purification dates.  Small animals and birds, such as turtle doves, were a mandatory offering, but this practice was eventually abandoned.  Candles were later incorporated, as a symbol of purity and new life, and so the feast became also known as Candlemas, or Día de la Candelaria, in Spanish.

Pre-Hispanic ceremonies in ancient Mexico were always connected to the earth (for fertility) and meteorological events (for abundance).  The midwinter days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox were dedicated to the new year (in the Aztec calendar) and the beginning of the agricultural season in Mesoamerica; offerings of corn were dedicated to the gods for healthy and abundant crops.  After the Spanish conquest, Día de la Candelaria came to replace these practices, but incorporated some aspects from them, such as blessing of seeds for the coming planting season, and the offering and sharing of corn-based food and beverages.

All these traditions of pre-Hispanic and Christian origin explain why the current celebration in Mexico involves church services for the blessing of candles and figurines representing baby Jesus, and the sharing of corn-based food, particularly tamales, hosted by the person(s) who found prizes hidden in the special bread served on Epiphany Day.

My kind of midwinter day’s dream is, for Groundhog Day, to have Phil, Sam, Willy and all the other weather forecast beasts predict an early spring (more gardening days!); for Candlemas, to be bright and meaningful and, in particular for Día de la Candelaria in Mexico, that after candles and baby Jesus figurines are blessed, families and friends will gather around to share an inviting offering of corn-based food and beverages (more on that in my next post).


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