From the Feb. 6, 1959 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

People and publications of any and all varieties will mention groundhog day and its significance in regards to the weather to come. If the groundhog sees his shadow on emerging from hibernation, he will return for six weeks more sleep in order to dodge the remaining period of hard weather. Should it be a cloudy day and no shadow is visible, then winter, as recognized, is at an end.

Such is the groundhog day tradition but it was not always so. As a matter of fact, the introduction of the groundhog seems to be a truly American institution. When, where or how it came into the picture, nobody knows. Certainly, it is not a very ancient superstition because early Americans observed the date in old country style and called it Candlemas Day. Candlemas Day was supposed to mark the passage of just one-half of the winter season. “Half of your meat and half of your hay...” ran the old rhyme and this too was a departure from the older sentiment.

Autumn was a season for moulding candles, the collection of fat being ample at that time because ancient people of the northern zones considered it an extravagance to use artificial light during the long days of summer.

Ancient writers of all ages have referred to the wastefulness of burning candles or lamps in summer and thus it is clear that with no call for candles, the household supply of tallow and fat accumulated during that season and at some time in early autumn, as is well known, there was a grand candle moulding to prepare a supply of light for the long winter evenings.

There was a practical reason for thus preparing artificial light for the season. Much work was done in the home during the early evening hours. For it was at this time of day that the man of the house carved out his spare axe-handles, ox-yokes and hoe-bills. He repaired his boots and shoes and hammered out a supply of nails at the side of the fireplace. He made himself a new gun-stock or, if musical, he made himself a fiddle and he needed the light to work by.

His wife and daughters spun and wove, or knitted the resultant yarn into garments during the early evening hours. They performed all manner of home tasks at such times when the small children were in bed and out of the way and there was a greater semblance of order in the kitchen than at other times. And, best of all, from their own point of view, they did not have to waste the valuable hours of daylight at such tasks.

The “cobbler’s” candlestick was the means of lighting when such work was at hand, and many varieties of this odd bit of furniture may be found here and there. Not nearly as many as there should be, because the whale-oil lamp was invented and the cobbler’s candlestick being of wood, probably found its way into the kitchen fire except in rare instances where people refused to throw away or destroy anything whatsoever.

Thus it was that the winter work which could not be done out-of-doors by daylight, plus such neighborhood gatherings as might have taken place, consumed candles rapidly, especially the soft, homemade variety containing no wax or very little.

Mid-winter then, or as nearly to it as might have been, saw the husbandman and wife taking account of stock. If the supplies of food and fodder were more than half consumed, something had to be done about it, and whether or not this was so, the supply of candles must be replenished, if the work indoors was to continue as scheduled.

Here on the Vineyard and likewise in many other places, the scramble for candle-fat must have been a rather serious thing in the early days. The people hereabouts knew all about the splendid candles which could be made from mutton-tallow and beef suet but alas, the sheep had to be preserved for their wool, the only material available for clothing, and the cattle for the milk and draft purposes.

Only those which died from one cause or another were carefully disposed of in such ways as to waste no fragment of tallow or hide for leather, or intestinal membrane for the various purposes for which it was employed, and this condition of affairs endured for many years as the records serve to show.

Now it was to the moulding of candles that the ancients turned on Candlemas Day, the mid-winter point and period, when such work could be done. And all of the ancient sayings and traditions developed around this practice and belief and somehow all of them included reference to the weather.

“As far as the sun shall shine in on Candlemas Day, So far shall the snow blow in before May.” Thus runs one such Jingle.

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will take another plight. If it shall be cloudy with rain, Winter will not come again.” So runs another, and there are various others, all woven about the belief that the weather on that day indicated what was to come thereafter.

Compiled by Hilary Wall