Good evening. It’s nine p.m. on a Saturday night, so naturally, I’m sipping a Ribena and reading about IR35 tax reform. I’ve been ashore for a week now, and the kids all have some respiratory infection that has given me a rather itchy throat. However, the days are lengthening, and I can sense spring on the horizon. I’ve just put the kids to bed, after reading them the story of Elijah.
We’ve been discussing symbolism as a family this week since the second of February was Candlemas. An ancient Christian festival that was evidently still in observance by some of the good people of Middelburg and Vlissingen, where I was working in the Netherlands. My eldest daughter loves candles, so I brought some very colourful spiral candlesticks home for her to burn in the evening after dinner.
(Middelburg is amazing, by the way).
The festival comes forty days after Christmas and was a significant moment in the medieval calendar across Europe.
Like modern corporations now looking at their budget, planning for the coming tax year, and assessing the feasibility of new hires, this festival coincidentally marked the end of the year for indentured servants, who (if they were free to do so), could now end their contracts and look for a new employer for the year. I myself have been speaking to potential new clients for the upcoming ‘season’ offshore, unwittingly coinciding with an ancient Babylonian and Jewish end-of-year tradition. (Although I’m most looking forward to an early Purim next week, when the in-laws come over. A Jewish new year festival which mandates that men get so drunk they don’t know right from wrong, or good from evil!)
This was traditionally the beginning of the ‘farmer’s year’. A time when half his stores of fodder should still be left for the remainder of winter; and when enough daylight becomes available to begin planning for the activities of Spring. With most of the farmer’s candles having been consumed in the preceding darker months, it was time to replenish stocks. People would make new candles and take them to the church to be blessed. A portion of these candles would then be donated to the church for use throughout the liturgical year ahead. In many traditions this was the day that Christmas decorations would come down (as I observed recently in Zeeland), only to be replaced by candles in the window until (presumably), the Spring Equinox.
German and Dutch farmers had a legend that if a badger or hedgehog came out of his burrow on Candlemas day and caught sight of his shadow, there would be another six weeks of winter. Of course, this was a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour, as there will always be six more weeks of winter, after the second of February.
If you haven’t already made the mental connection, when these Dutch people moved to Pennsylvania, they brought the tradition with them. Although, with an absence of badgers and hedgehogs, the legend became Groundhog Day – a real life medieval tradition that is still celebrated every year in the US. (Allegedly, they did try to use hibernating bears for the ceremony at one point, but I think that must have been an earlier generation of settler, that long ago collected its Darwin award).
The symbolism is clear. Candlemas celebrates the infant Jesus being brought to the Temple and recognised as the light of the world – reflected by the use of candles. The subterranean rodents are untrustworthy creatures who dwell between this world and the underworld, like the rabbits who shall not be mentioned at sea, they represent darkness and death.
If these lower-than-earthly creatures emerge from their inhuman ‘seasonal death sleep’ that is hibernation on Candlemas, naturally, they would feel fear and shame at the sight of the light of the world that is Christ and return to their underworld shelter.
We celebrated not by smoking a badger from his hole, as is tradition, but by watching Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray – everyone’s favourite resident of Charleston SC.
That movie was so iconic, that ‘Groundhog Day’ has its own entry in the Royal Navy’s Jackspeak dictionary of Naval jargon. It is used to mean any task or deployment that is dull, repetitive and seemingly never-ending. As in: ‘Do you like doing fishery patrol duties? ‘Ahhh. Well, it’s alright. It can be a bit Groundhog Day though. We hardly ever get to use the gun. We’re just chasing this lot around and counting their fish all day’.
The movie is as brilliant now as it ever was. And absolutely packed with symbolic references. Firstly, Bill Murray’s main character, Phil, shares a name with the underworld-dwelling beastly representation of shame and sin that is Punxsutawney Phil – A real life Groundhog said to have been alive since 1886. (Some believe he is named after the late Prince Philip. I’ll leave you to ponder the symbolic desire to make that connection).
Phil the weatherman is a horrible person. Rude, mean, selfish, greedy, lustful, dishonest, manipulative, etc. Although his eventual redemption is foreshadowed by him being made to literally turn the other cheek, in the opening parts of the film. He is broken and has no love in his life.
He desperately tries to manipulate his superior female colleague, Rita, into bed. His unlimited repetition of the same day nearly allows him to succeed in this manipulation, yet he is repeatedly rebuffed. The standard set by this unattainable woman actually causes him to really fall in love with her. His inability to gain her affection leads him to suicide. These become darkly humorous multiple suicide attempts, as he is resurrected against his will over and over again.
Rita is short for Margarita, which means Pearl. Phil, obviously, reminds us of Philo. Philosophy means love of wisdom. Phil chasing Rita, is the story of the struggle of a man’s love for (pearls of) wisdom. Phil the weatherman, one who studies the patterns of nature to explain them to an audience, is man, contrasted with Phil, the beast from under the earth.
So how does unfulfilled Phil, attain a proper philosophy?
Well, he sleeps, dies, and is symbolically ‘reborn’ every day. The author intended to have the story as 10,000 cycles of this, but in the end, they chose to film as though for forty days and forty nights.
When Phil indulges in his improper loves, pleasure-seeking and sly manipulation, he does not find love. Rita (wisdom) rejects him every time.
Eventually, he gives up on manipulation and control. He just accepts that every day is a gift worth living, that he should make the best of. In short, he saw that creation is good. Then he starts to notice the people in the small town around him and works on good deeds to help as many of them enjoy the day as well as they can. He begins to learn their names for the first time.
By the last day, he knows the name of everyone in town. He has mastered charity, language, art and music. He serves everyone, and he is loved by all. He has mastered the way of the day. And by this time, Rita cannot help but love and admire him. They become properly bonded, and the curse of Groundhog Day is broken.
It is a religious story.
Religio, like Mitzvah, means binding or bringing together. It is the real-life, particular, real-world actions that bring him love. The fact that he knows everyone’s name and personal story is a key part of what this delightful film shows us. He learns to love through service to others.
Focusing on the self is not the way to be.
I guess I'd better watch the movie. I often get the fleeting urge to jump on a plane and visit Europe after I read your posts and see some of the pics. There is something about the culture, history and traditions of Europe that I believe triggers an atavistic yearning to return to the land of my parents.
Wunderbar Scott. Very interesting meander down the symbolic rabbit (groundhog) hole for Candlemas....