Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Midwinter's Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday not much celebrated except in elementary schools (and, of course, in Punxsutawney, PA). It's a pity, because this little-observed festival is all we really have these days to commemorate the midpoint of winter--the halfway mark between the winter solstice (which comes amid all the hustle and bustle of Christmastime) and the spring equinox (which leads the way for the spring festivals of Passover and Easter). In the past, various festivals occurred at this time of year, from the Irish hearth festival of Imbolg to the Catholic Feast of the Purification of Mary, or Candlemas. It's a traditional date for taking down Christmas decorations, as described in this poem by Robert Herrick. And the tradition of watching the weather for a sign of spring is reflected in the old English rhyme, "If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, / Winter will have another flight. / If Candlemas Day bring clouds and rain, / Winter will not come again."

Okay, perhaps it's not realistic to believe that spring will ever really come this early just because a groundhog can't see his shadow. But even so, this day is a sort of a turning point in the season--not the beginning of spring, but the beginning of the end for winter. We may still have six weeks to go, but we've made it through the darkest and, with any luck, the coldest days. Under the snow, the bulbs are waking up, and soon we'll see the first green shoots of crocuses and snowdrops. The sap is beginning to rise in the trees, and soon it will be time for maple sugaring. For gardeners, it's time to order our seeds and start plotting out next spring's vegetable beds. Winter may not be over, but its days are numbered.

So, for all those who want to honor this point in the cycle of the seasons, here's a little poem I wrote four years back while traipsing through the bleak brown February landscape--tentatively titled "Groundhog Day."

This is the heart of winter,
the certainty of cold.
No snow to make the landscape bright,
no ice to glaze the branches;
just brown, and grey, and mottled green,
mud thick as molasses.
Past is the cheer of holly boughs,
the flickering gold of candles.
This is the long wait for the dawn,
for the first shout of green.
This is not the time for fruits,
not the time for flowers;
this is the time for hidden things,
for seeds that stir beneath the soil,
for frogs that sleep in beds of mire,
for sap that rises in the wood.
This is a breath held, and held, and held.
This is not the end of the year but the beginning.

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