Mid-Winter Groundhog Grace

The Desertless Life, part 1

In the beauty and grace of winter the trees rest. Their bare branches let in the sky. The season’s table is set with ice and starlight. It is a time for bundling up, hunkering in, snuggling – a contemplative and spare time before the profligacy of spring. These are the graces of winter.

It is mid-winter now. The precise mid-point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox was Fri Feb 3, at 5:36pm EST, though the midpoint is traditionally celebrated as Imbolc or Saint Brigid's Day (Feb 1), or Candlemas or Groundhog Day (Feb 2).

Here at Community UU in White Plains, our folks were honoring and celebrating the mid-season "Days in Place" on Sat Feb 4. It was a fittingly chilly and gloriously bright and clear day.

Imbolc -- the mid-winter Gaelic festival marking the mid-way point between winter solstice and vernal equinox -- is a celebration which, in modern times, the neo-pagan movement has revived and spread. Imbolc began as the festival associated with the goddess Brigid, goddess of spring. In some traditions, the solstices and equinoxes are not the beginning of the seasons but the mid-points of the season, which would make the mid-points into the beginnings. According to those traditions, this is the beginning of spring now – and the March 21 equinox will be the mid-Spring point. The difference between the traditions raises the question: is it spring now, or do we have six more weeks of winter?

Imbolc is recognized by Pagans today as a time for purification and rededication – for cleaning, like spring cleaning. With the arrival of Christianity, the day came to be honored as Saint Brigid’s Day – the saint, some scholars suggest, being simply a Christianization of the goddess.

Candlemas is also an occasion marking mid-winter. Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Catholics have a tradition of bringing their candles to their local church to be blessed for the rest of the year. An old English tradition of Candlemas had it that,
“If Candlemas be fair and bright: Come, Winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain: Go, Winter, and come not again.”
It was, perhaps an outgrowth of confusion about two different methods of defining the beginning of spring. Is it now, or is it in six more weeks? Folk traditions said it depends on the weather on February 2. In early-American folklore, this turned into the idea that a bright clear day would mean that a groundhog would see her shadow and be startled back into her den.

In this mid-winter contemplative time, time itself seems nonlinear. Maybe we’ll keep on looping through more of the same, and maybe, a new day will dawn. The mystical groundhog will reveal it to us.

This year Punxsutawney Phil said 6 more weeks of winter, while, closer to home, Staten Island Chuck said early spring. Some locales use alternative animals. In Portland, Oregon, this year Fufu the Hedgehog said early spring. In Louisiana, a nutria – also known as a coypu – named Pierre C. Shadeaux – seems not to have addressed the spring question, but did, on February second this year, predict an early summer. I guess it’s already spring beyond question in Louisiana. In Clark County, Nevada, they consult Mojave Max, a desert tortoise.

In the magical, mystery of mid-winter, we turn to mystical animals for guidance. Are we stuck with day after day of the same frozen-ness? Or is a new warm sunshine about to break forth?

The 1993 movie, “Groundhog Dog,” takes the question to its extreme. Weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, literally faces the same day over and over. At first, he can’t stand this winter of the soul that he is stuck in. Blaming the mystical animal, he kidnaps the Groundhog, declaring,
“There is no way that this winter is *ever* going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”
But kidnapping the groundhog doesn’t work. He’s still stuck in February second.

Over many repetitions of the day – thousands, apparently – Phil comes to make his peace with perpetual winter. We see him at one point, a changed man, giving his report into the camera:
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
Which brings us to grace. Blogger Mark Lockard writes:
"Deep down, it's a story about grace. It's about Phil peeling back all the layers of his flawed self, seeing the raw deal and becoming more than he ever knew he could. It’s a story of self-forgiveness, healing and new life....He breaks his cycle by binding his wounds and finding a new way to live and be in the world." (ministrymatters.com, 2015 Feb 3)
For all the pain and disappointment, we can bring kindness to our life, face the hurt, heal.
“So when the clock hits 6:00 and Sonny tells Cher to put her little hand in his, we can put on our booties ‘cause it’s cooold out there’ with confidence. The chill will bite, but we will face the stark winter day wrapped warmly in the knowing that it’s OK to get it wrong; that’s part of the process....That’s what grace is all about.”
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This is part 1 of 3 of "The Desertless Life"
See also
Part 2: Shedding Desert
Part 3: I Don't Deserve a Donut

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