Fasting and feasting holidays are the events in the Jewish calendar around which life is orientated. Many of these ‘festivals’ have their origin in the laws which God gave to the people of Israel after they left Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land. Others developed out of key events in their history, for example, Purim, a day of fasting in February which goes back to when Esther obtained freedom for the Jews who were under threat in Xerxes’ reign.
Fasting doesn’t really make it into the year of festivals in our modern consumption-driven developed world. It has recently become popular as a part of a diet, with a good medical basis, it has to be said. Even in Christian circles fasting isn’t practised much, although Tearfund have advocated fasting as an encouragement to become aware of and pray for those who live with hunger and malnutrition and for the climate emergency. Appreciation of food is enhanced when we participate in fasting either out of solidarity with poor people, or concern for the future of our planet, or for health and well-being reasons. In the Jewish year fasting and feasting go hand in hand and the feasts are all the more joyously celebrated because of the fasts.
Festivals in our culture are often occasions for indulgence of our appetites and as opportunities for consumption and, it should be said, for all the attendant benefits to our economies. Only a few have their origins in the Christian faith or in the faiths of the many peoples who are now our neighbours. Christmas is the most widely celebrated Christian festival and we’re used to struggling with how it has been commercialised. Sadly the commercialised Easter now begins almost immediately after Christmas when chocolate eggs make their appearance on shop shelves.
So what festivals might we celebrate in February? Lent often, but not always, begins in February, but doesn’t make it into the retailers’ calendar for obvious reasons. St. Valentine’s Day is a favourite and in some countries everybody is entitled to a card not just those who are celebrating the beginning or the continuation of romantic love. St Brigid, known for her generosity to the poor, is remembered on 1 February, which coincides with the first day of spring in the Celtic calendar.
Then there is Badger Day! We know it better as Groundhog Day, probably mainly because of the film. It is widely celebrated in the USA and Canada, having originated in Pennsylvania in 1887, but it began earlier in Germany as Badger Day. Badger / Groundhog Day coincides with Candlemas in the Christian calendar. Candlemas is the feast of the presentation of Jesus in the temple as recorded in Luke 2: 22-35 when Simeon recognised Jesus as the promised Messiah. It is also celebrated as the day when Mary came to be purified following the birth of Jesus according to Leviticus 12. Candlemas Day falls on 2 February in our calendar, 40 days after Christmas.
The linguistic and cultural links between Badger Day, Groundhog Day and Candlemas are eloquently explained in https://unherd.com/2021/02/we-need-candlemas-more-than-ever/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups=18743&tl_period_type=3 Eleanor Parker, the author of this article, says ‘…Candlemas is about the meeting between birth and death, love and grief, winter and spring, childhood and old age. Images of the Presentation usually show aged Simeon taking the baby into his arms, and one of the texts sung at Candlemas muses on this meeting: “The old man carried the child, but the child guided the old man”.’ What a wonderful encounter to reflect on and celebrate as a festival!
This year many more folk have considered marking Candlemas Day, looking for light in the darkness of Covid-lockdown and not just the intensifying light of approaching spring. Maybe there be other festivals lurking in the Christian calendar that we can celebrate and offer to our world in pain to help make this period more bearable and point towards the real source of hope?
And what about Badger Day? I write this on another wet February day in a wet February week for the second year in a row. Traditionally, according to our historic weather data, February is a dry month. Whilst none of us like wet days, for farmers a wet February is disastrous as they start to spread the slurry that has accumulated over the winter months when animals have been indoors and spreading slurry is illegal. ‘Spreading’ relates to feasting. We often have ‘spreads’ at our church festivals, such as harvest. But what should be a feast for the land creates risks for the environment, and fasting, denying, has to be practised by farmers, giving them problems … but this is another story for another time….
Badger Day, Groundhog Day, is celebrated as the beginning of spring … maybe. Weather lore has it as ‘If the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole.’ So rain in early February is a good sign that winter is over, apparently. Last year a very wet February was followed by beautiful weather during the first lockdown. The recent ‘Winterwatch’ series on BBC2 over the end of January and beginning of February showed lots of badgers playing, not sleeping, and not stopping to check the weather. Maybe we need to do what these badgers weren’t doing and check the weather to grasp how climate change is affecting our lives? Of course, ‘weather’ being short-term won’t necessarily indicate the long-term changes in ‘climate’ that we attribute to global warming, so we need to observe how weather patterns change and have been changing over longer periods, decades at least. Often it is effects on the natural world, especially plants, that help us ‘see’ climate change.
It’s not just climate change that should stir us to reflect on how we live, but rather grasping that Earth’s resources are finite, with the exception of light arriving from the sun. So maybe we need to learn to fast as well as feast to care for this precious planet that God has given us responsibility for? Lent, beginning on Wednesday 17 February this year, gives us an opportunity to fast, giving up something, traditionally some foods but more recently technology, etc., or taking up something, e.g. walking or cycling (suggestions abound), to benefit both our souls and the planet.
Ethel White is a research scientist in agriculture.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.