Notre Dame de la Chandeleur --
The Groundhog Day You Don’t Know
Par Kent Beaulne dit Bone
February contains four religious feast days that fall on fixed dates, marking the beginning, the middle, and the end of the month. They are Notre-Dame de la Chandeleur, Our Lady of Candlemas on Feb 2nd, the feasts of St Blaise, Feb 3rd, St Valentine on Feb 14th, and St Mathias, Feb 24th. The month also contains an extra day every fourth year known as Leap Day.
Candlemas also known as Groundhog Day, and Valentines’ Day are the most familiar. Candlemas marked the time spring planting traditionally began. The day has become an American tradition in which a groundhog or woodchuck comes out of hibernation. If he sees his shadow, he returns to his burrow foretelling six more weeks of bad weather.
Feb 2nd, Candlemas is a feast of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, commemorating the Purification of Mary. In the Eastern (Orthodox) Churches it commemorates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. In accordance with Mosaic Law, Mary presented Jesus in the temple of Jerusalem and made an offering to symbolize her purification forty days after his birth. The feast can be traced to the fourth century and was marked by a procession and the blessing of candles, to symbolize Christ as the Light of the World.
The name Candlemas comes from the tradition of blessing candles and distributing them to worshipers. The day in Spanish is called Candelaria. The French call it Chandeleur, from chandelle (candle). In Quebec, Canada and the west of France, as in other Catholic countries, candles blessed on February second were attributed with specific powers such as protection against danger notably storms and lightning. Among the French Creoles of the Mississippi Valley, blessed candles as well as palm is burned during storms.
Not only was La Chandeleur a Christian Feast day, but also popularized by pancake supper and les veillées (evening gatherings). If the French Canadians and French believed in the value and aid of the blessed candles, they gave nearly as much credibility to eating crêpes at Chandeleur.
Saute crêpette dans ma poelette. Jump little crepe in my skillet.
Un demi-cent fera bé mon content. A half cent will make me content.
A la Chandelou les crêpes roul partout. At Candlemas the crepes roll everywhere.
A verse from a song associated with Chandeleur at Poitou, France.
Eating crêpes on Candlemas was seen as a symbol of luck and became a guarantee for prosperity, good times and money for the year.
In France there are two kinds of crêpes. One type made of dark flour was served during times of penitence. The other a sweet crêpe made with eggs was prepared during festivals and holidays. At Rennes in Bretagne, (Britany) crêpes are made with milk and buckwheat flour and eaten with apple cider or white wine. At Ploermel, some are made of wheat flour, but more often of rye flour.
In Perche, another region of France, the first crêpe is given to the chickens to make them fat. In Poitou a person fries his own crêpe with a piece of gold in his left hand. The first one is thrown on the armoire. It is said there, “he who does not know how to handle the skillet, does not know how to handle the plow”. At Caen in Normandy, proof of skill consists of tossing the crêpe up the fireplace chimney out into the yard.
In Quebec, Canada, at Iles-de-Madeleine, a ring is placed in a pancake and whoever gets it will marry in the coming year. In Islet County Québec there is a custom of collecting flour from the neighbors to make crêpes de la Chandeleur. Presenting themselves at the door of the house a group of revelers sang the following verse.
Nous venons vous voir aujourd’hui. We come to see you today.
Mettez quelque chose dans notre panier. Put something in our basket.
Si vous ne donnez rien. If you give us nothing.
Le diable vous emportera. The devil will carry you away.
Various Acadian communities in the Canadian Maritime Provinces had long celebrated Candlemas and le Courir de la Chandeleur, the Candlemas run. It is now experiencing a revival. This type of house to house run, is known by anthropologists as a “begging quest”. Similar begging quests are Halloween, Christmas Caroling, Mumming, La Guillonée, and the rural Mardi Gras Run of south west Louisiana. In the past, a group of revelers with a leader, went house to house collecting food and other goods for the poor and for a communal supper. Today the goods are donated to local food banks for distribution to the needy. A similar thing has happened with the Montreal Guillonée. The revival was due in part to cuts in the Canadian Employment Insurance, as well as a renaissance of Acadian pride and culture. Prince Edward Island is the only place where la Chandeleur is run with a wooden rooster set on a pole. There are many theories about the original of this accessory but it seems plausible it is associated with the Carnaval-Mardi Gras celebrations of other regions of the world.
Growing up in DeSoto in a French Creole family, we always ate pancakes for supper on Groundhog Day. We assumed everyone did. We were told that if you don’t eat pancakes that day, we would get “the seven years itch”. We thought it meant we would scratch for seven years. In fact it means one will have seven years of hard times, scratching out a living. The term came from the French the ancestors spoke. It may have come about as a result of generations of folks sitting on their porches watching the chickens scratch for a living. Uncle, Babe Portell used to say he always ate pancakes for Groundhog Day, “parce que je veut pas la gratte a sept ans”. Well I don’t want the seven year itch non plus, so I always eat pancakes that day.
It is still a tradition in our family for everyone to show up at Betty Bone’s house in DeSoto for a pancake and sausage supper. Sometime neighbors or friends come over. They don’t understand why we were doing it, but they loved the free meal, and you can feed a lot of folks with pancakes. Although the tradition is based on thin crêpes, the thicker pancakes have become an accepted American adaptation by many Creoles.
Cyrilla Boyer at Racolla, still makes crêpes for Chandeleur, staying true to the tradition as it was handed down in her family. Doris Ann Bequette, descended from an old mining family, related that her mother would make the pancakes that day. Her grandfather would flip his pancakes up in the air, making them land back in the skillet every time. This flipping seems to have been an important part of the ritual.
Ray Brassieur, a Cajun from east Texas notes that in interviewing folks at Old Mine MO and Prairie du Rocher IL, a common theme was to eat seven pancakes to prevent the seven-year-itch. He states that his own family always ate pancakes at Groundhog Day and flipping them was an acquired skill, the kids were determined to master.
Ray writes in his doctoral thesis Expressions of French Identity in the Mid-Mississippi Valley. “It is amazing to consider the many generations of Mississippi Valley French folks, separated by great distances of time and space, all compelled by tradition to eat crêpes, year after year, on the same day, all confident that they had done their part to maintain proper order in the universe”.
This may not be an exclusively French ritual. The late Ladonna Herman, who grew up in St Louis, said both her grandmothers made crêpes on Feb 2nd. She said they were observing Candlemas, not Groundhog Day. Her German grandmother married a Frenchman, while her French grandmother had married a German. Both ethnic groups were and still are, plentiful in St Louis. Her grandmother Burst would have the grandchildren line up and then flip the crêpes into their plates. This would have been in the 1930s.
A question that comes to mind; how did the Christian holyday of Candlemas with its food element, evolve into the secular semi-holiday of Groundhog Day. The answer may be television and that Pennsylvania groundhog named Phil.
The Oxford Book of Carols, first published by the university in 1928, includes Candlemas Eve, from an old church hymnal book and attributed to R. Herrick.
Article previously published in the Missouri Folklore Society Journal, and Ozark Watch Magazine, Missouri State University, Springfield MO.