The first weekend of February sees the intersection of several holidays: February 1 is Saint Brigid’s day in the Catholic and Anglican churches. February 2 is Candlemas—or the presentation of Jesus at the temple (sometimes referred to as the purification of the blessed virgin at the temple). Together, these are perhaps the most widespread celebrations in the Western Christian tradition. Of course, the week also brings Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl—which I would argue are two of the more celebrated secular holidays in America.
Groundhog Day is most famously associated with Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He was immortalized in the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day,” about a man who is forced to relive one day of his life over again until he sorts out his own karmic lessons and can move forward with life as a redeemed and improved person. A musical adaptation of the film premiered in 2017 at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Danny Rubin.
I have been ruminating on the significance of these intersecting holidays of late, none of which I really grew up with. Though my parents were interfaith, and we celebrated a wide range of religious holidays in our household, the brand of Calvinist Protestantism that my father’s side of the family embraced would have abhorred anything as ostentatious as Candlemas. Though, folklore of the groundhog seeing its shadow as a weather predictor was right up my grandmother’s alley. (Phil didn’t see his shadow last Sunday, so spring will arrive early in 2020!)
I think the first time I ever watched the Super Bowl was with Jock sometime in the early 2000s. The only sporting event I remember seeing on television growing up was the Kentucky Derby. When I was home from school one year with the flu, I got to watch the Olympics. (Further attempts to contract the flu to coincide with future Olympic games have not worked out according to plan.)
My concept of holidays as calendar markers is evolving in adulthood, from something I didn’t appreciate as a child or teenager, to something I mourned for years, to the idea that the purpose of marking and acknowledging our time together on this planet is part of how we share our lives with each other. What else is the Super Bowl but an opportunity for people to get together, eat, drink and behave with excitement and abandon? All these things add up to collective memories with friends and loved ones that we fondly look back on hopefully in years to come.
In my early 20s, a friend commented that for him, watching football—and the Super Bowl especially—was a time that it was permissible to act childlike again. It was one time he and his friends could scream, shout, cheer, dance on furniture and express exuberance that is frowned upon for adults in most circumstances. Even though I don’t really understand professional football, I do understand the idea of collective excitement and a holiday from responsibilities.
Oddly, with no family background of interest, this weekend was one that was starting to call to me. There must be something about it that has attracted so much interest for these events to converge. Let’s take Groundhog Day as a good point of exploration. The celebration itself came over to the United States with Germanic immigrants, primarily the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Think about the circumstance where this emerged: You live in Northern Europe and subsist largely through farming and hunting. By early February, you have been surrounded by snow for months. The burning question in your mind: When will the snow melt so we can get back to trying to feed ourselves again? Many of the animals that you hunt for food hibernate in the winter. The idea to have a groundhog wake up and get frightened back to six more weeks of hibernation by seeing its shadow has a pretty direct impact on your food supply. Not only will there be six more weeks until the hunting improves, but six more weeks until you can start trying to prepare the fields for the next planting.
It is not hard to piece together from where this myth evolved. Immigrants come to snow-covered forests of the Americas, especially the northeast and spread into the midwest. Many of the same circumstances of meteorology and subsistence still apply. Moreover, being in a new area, one clings to people with common ancestry, celebrations and stories taken for granted in the old country, which now gain significance and importance in this brave new world.
It took me a long time to come around to the film “Groundhog Day.” Many movies other people find entertaining or heartwarming, I find terrifying and upsetting (“Christmas Carol” is a great example; it’s not a heart-warming story). The idea of living every day the same, and the only difference is how you chose to react to it, how you chose to go through the world, and what you do with the knowledge you have, is a pretty powerful lesson. Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, has to face himself and make some hard decisions about his outlook in the world and who he is going to be. As he asks in the film, why is it this day that was chosen for him to relive over again? He can recall a wonderful day, with a gorgeous woman that was every man’s dream. Why did he get this boring day in snow and ice, surrounded by unimportant people he doesn’t care about? The answer: Actions on the unimportant days make up the sum of our lives. That’s a tough lesson to internalize.
Let’s stop and think about what seeing your own shadow means. When standing in light, you can see your own darkness. Choosing to be scared of your own darkness would cause you to retreat from it, to hide, rather than face it—and thereby doom your loved ones to less light, love and warmth. Is it in dark winter we need to come together to celebrate each other’s shared light?
Though the winter solstice is the longest night of the year, and thereby associated with darkness, the long dragging days of slushy winter for me are in late January and February. Then, I am ready to start thinking about flowers and the return of spring. I wonder if the interest in the Super Bowl isn’t partly the desire to have a collective shared joy?
Valentine’s Day is more of a dedicated day for a couple. It isn’t really about a collective experience, with lots of family and friends. Last weekend’s big game and Groundhog Day could be about finding something deeper, more enlightening. It was also the 60th anniversary of the Greensboro Four, who sat down at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and asked to be served. Talk about a moment that challenged people to find their collective light. The four young men were joined by supporters from Bennett College, Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, and James B. Dudley High School. Eventually, the sit-in movement at lunch counters spread across the nation, involving over 70,000 protesters.
I hope everyone had a good Super Bowl weekend, and took a moment of silence to thank the Greensboro Four: Joseph McNeill (from Wilmington!) David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Ezell A. Blair Jr. More importantly, I hope everyone spent some time looking for the collective light within. We need each other’s goodness or we won’t get through the winter to see the spring.