Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kyndilmessa: In the Absence of Groundhogs

Unless you’ve been hiding in a burrow yourself, you’re undoubtedly aware that today is Groundhog Day, one of the lesser holidays of the calendar year, although it did provide the inspiration for an entertaining movie some years ago.  I’ve noticed that more attention seems to have been paid to the day this year, perhaps because we’ve endured such a strange and oppressive winter.

The humble groundhog is utterly unknown in Iceland, where the only land mammals before the arrival of humans were the Arctic fox and the mouse, save for the occasional polar bear which drifted ashore on the ice and then starved to death.  In the absence of groundhogs and the fun little festival to which they lent their name, the Icelanders observed Kyndilmessa (or Torch Mass), which those who pay attention to such matters know as Candlemas in English.  Originally known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, it marked the day on which Mary was thought to have undergone her ritual purification at the Temple in Jerusalem and to have presented her infant son Jesus.  There are at least five different names for this feast day in Icelandic but Kyndilmessa is the one that’s stuck!

Whether you call it Kyndilmessa or Candlemas, its name derives from the medieval custom of processing around and about the church with candles.  A seventh-century pope decreed that all candles used in worship should be consecrated on this day and Árni Björnsson suggests that Icelanders lit their homes more brightly on Kyndilmessa, even after the Reformation had put an end to many other early church rituals.

Across northern and central Europe, and probably long before the Christian era, the weather on Candlemas was thought to presage the progress of winter.  A little English doggerel sets out the basic meteorological formula:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if the day be shower and rain,
Winter’s gone, not to come again.

The Icelanders were no different from their counterparts on the mainland, as reflected in this verse recorded by the nineteenth-century folklorist Jón Árnason:

            Ef í heiði sólin sést
            á sjálfu kyndilmessu
            snjóa vænta máttu mest
            maður upp frá þessu.

Loosely translated, this verse says:

If on the heath the sun is seen
among ourselves on Kyndilmessa,
heavy snowfall’s most expected:
take heed, o man, from this.

Árni Björnsson maintains that many Icelanders in times past were so convinced that the coming season’s weather could be predicted on Kyndilmessa that “they would curse any trace of sunshine” and “even cover their windows if the sun happened to be bright that day.”  Whether they were pessimists or simply everyday pragmatists, I suppose they just couldn’t trust a fair and sunny day as an omen of good things to come.  At times, it seems like our general outlook hasn’t changed much!  At least we Icelanders needn’t wait for the groundhog’s report: a simple stroll across the heath will do!

— Stefan M. Jonasson

For further reading:

Árni Björnsson, High Days and Holidays in Iceland, trans. Anna H. Yates (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1995).

Árni Björnsson, Icelandic Feasts and Holidays, trans. May and Hallberg Hallmundsson (Reykjavík: Iceland Review, 1980).

Steingrímsfjarðarheiði - Photograph by Stefan M. Jonasson (2005)

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