Holy days of obligation existed from the very beginnings of the Church, and would increase in number after the fourth century. These were days for attending Mass and abstaining from all servile work. Indeed, one reason for the proliferation of these feast days was that otherwise there would be no respite for the common man.
By the 12th century, 41 such feast days—in addition to Sundays—were celebrated in certain dioceses, and the number would continue to grow until multiplication of these days was seen not as a respite, but as an oppression of the poor. In 1642, Pope Urban VIII was the first to finally reduce the number of holy days of obligation, and this action would be continued by subsequent pontiffs. Note that most of these festivals are still on the liturgical calendar, but are either not obligatory anymore, or are celebrated on the following Sunday. At this point, the number of holy days of obligation, and which ones are to be celebrated as such, varies by country.
One of the days that has dropped off the list in many places, including the United States, is the festival taking place 40 days after Christmas, referred to as the feast of Purification of the Blessed Virgin, Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas.
By Old Testament law, the mother of a male child was to present herself in the Temple, 40 days after delivery, for ritual purification. This feast was introduced into the Church calendar early in the 6th century, and developed to include a solemn procession with lighted candles, hence the name Candlemas.
But the beginning of February, occurring as it does, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, was a significant time long before the Church came along. This was when the Celtic festival of Imbolc was celebrated, anticipating the birth of farm animals, and the planting of crops. This feast still appears on Pagan calendars.
It had long been observed that hibernating animals, including bears, badgers, and groundhogs, would temporarily emerge from their winter’s sleep. Although this has more to do with the amount of fat they were able to store, than whether it was February 2nd, such a belief in the significance of this early February date has persisted since the Middle Ages. And, along with it was the notion that if the day were sunny and the animal saw its shadow, six more weeks of winter weather would occur. However, if the day were cloudy, the successive period would be mild, leading to an early Spring. Thus the poem…
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Come, winter, have another flight
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.
Although German immigrants brought the custom to these shores in the shape of a badger, that soon changed to a groundhog. Since 1887, the most famous groundhog has appeared at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. With secularization of this country a fait accompli since the 1960’s, most Americans were quite content to substitute the emergence of a groundhog for the Presentation of Jesus—the former being far more enlightened, I guess.
Then came 9/11, and the realization that some took their religion seriously, to the point of wanting to kill those outside their realm, and even their co-religionists who were not sufficiently militant. Some of us wonder what comfort there might be in religious fervor that best expresses itself in violence, and question why such behavior should even be tolerated, much less explained away.
However, one thing is certain. The re-creation of formerly Christian Europe and North America into secular territory has been lost on an entire class of immigrants, and no matter how enlightened the perpetrators of this tragedy may feel, all they have done is made us weaker and more vulnerable.
For now, the shadow engulfs us all.