Observations on a Ground Hog
…and I don’t mean that it’s greasy and tastes like chicken
If you can bear another religion related topic, I have something to say. I promise to post again soon with a completely non-credo-related subject.
The question has been put to me, “As an atheist, do you celebrate Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving, and if so why?” It’s a fair question, but before I answer I want to talk about Ground Hog’s Day.
Today, February Second, is a date established in Punxsutawney, PA in 1886 for this tongue-in-cheek annual celebration, but is it really just a lark? Most people in this country enjoy hearing about Phil’s yearly prognostications, but know nothing of the holiday’s religious roots. That’s right, I said the roots of Ground Hog’s day are strictly religious.
I know a woman from Punxsutawney (a Christian) for whom the holiday is very serious. Whatever she is doing, wherever she may be in the world on February 1, she makes sure to be home on the famous knob on February second. Though it’s not for religious reasons for her. It’s about hometown pride and community.
Punxsutawney was founded by German Settlers (Christians) who came to that area in the eighteenth century which had earlier been established as a campsite by the Delaware Indians. These natives had their own well defined religious mythology in which they believed that their ancestors had “evolved” from earth dwelling animals, and they held the ground hog in high esteem as a revered ancestor.
The Germans had a tradition called Candle Mass. This was a pseudo-Christian adaptation of an old pagan ritual begun during the annual celebration of Imbolc. Imbolc fell at the halfway point of winter (Feb. 2) and pagan tradition held that if the day was overcast, it was a good omen foreshadowing (no pun intended) an early spring. Traditionally, the Germans would watch for a badger to see if he cast a shadow. Since badgers were in short supply in Pennsylvania, the Germans adopted the Delaware Indian’s favorite rodent, the ground hog. For several years, it was considered serious business, but by the time of the Industrial revolution, it was just kitschie. Thus, the Gobbler’s Knob tradition was born.
Another more religious holiday that has strong ties to Pagan roots is one that comes with the Spring. Easter gets it’s name from the pagan Saxon goddess Eostre. It is the only significant Christian holiday that uses the seasons and not the calendar to determine it’s celebration date. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox. By contrast, Christmas could not care less when the solstice actually falls.
Several of the Easter traditions have their roots in paganism. The bunny was a fertility symbol in some pagan rites of spring. Many non-Christian cultures revered eggs as symbolic of rebirth and the universe. Lilies too, represent the newness of life that the Spring Equinox promises.
There are other carryovers from non-Christian origins into Christian celebrations. The Christmas tree comes from Germanic Druidism. The Yule log is strictly pagan. As are mistletoe, holly-berries, and the whole “twelve days” thing. Some Christian holidays so closely mirror the pagan ritual they were trying to assimilate that the distinction becomes blurry.
Halloween is the day before All Saint’s Day or All Hallows’ Day. All Hallows’ Evening (Halloween,) like Christmas Eve, falls the night before the holiday. It is the same night as the pagan holiday Samhain. ALL of the traditional All Saint’s Evening rituals are non-Christian, and are secular corruptings of pagan rites.
So when you ask me if I celebrate the holidays, I might just as easily ask you, “Do you give out candy on Halloween? Do you put up a Christmas tree? Do you knock on wood for good luck? (druidic) Do you enjoy St. Patrick’s day even if you aren’t Irish?”
If you do, good for you! It suggests that you enjoy celebrating traditions that aren’t ostensibly your own. It also means that we have that something in common. Maybe I’ll buy you una cerveza on May 5.