Today is the 2nd of February and you may be celebrating the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple if you are a Christian, or eating a lot of crêpes if you are French and gourmand. But perhaps you do not know that this day is also linked to old pagan beliefs and that some of them are about bears 🙂
In ancient times and in most of the parts of the world where bears were living, this animal was highly feared and respected by humans. Strongest beast known, he could be considered as the king of the forest. As so, he had often an important place in traditional celebrations and rituals.
At the end of January and/or beginning of February, most of the ancient European cultures celebrated the end of the winter and the coming back of the light with various rituals (the Roman Festa Candelarum, the Celtic Imbolc, etc.). The bear, with his winter sleep, used to be seen as a symbol of renaissance and of the cycle of the seasons. In various cultures, one very important celebration was related to a important moment of the animal’s life: when the bear woke up and went out of his den to see if the winter was over. He was supposed to observe the sky, the clouds, the wind and to take a decision about his hivernation. If the sky was clear and if the sun was shinning, that meant that the winter was not finished and the bear came back to his den to sleep 40 more days. But if the sky was cloudy, or of it was raining or snowing, that meant that it would be soon the end of the winter and the bear didn’t come back to sleep but started to look for food and to wait for better days.
In a lot of parts of Europe, this major event was thought to occure on an average of 40 days after the winter solstice, near the end of January or beginning of February, and a lot of celebrations took place on the 2nd of February, sometimes on the 3rd, or during several days. During this period, celebrations commemorated the bear going out with songs, dances, games and bear masquerades. For instance, men were wearing bear costumes and pretended to kidnap young women, like in the stories told in lots of beliefs and legends, in which bears were taking women to their den.
Soon, the Church tried to christianize this date where pagan rituals were very strong, transgressive and sometimes violent. Therefore, it put several celebrations to stop pagan cults, linked to the bears or not. So here is the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin, but as well Candlemas, the Roman candle celebration which was christianized.
The bear pagan celebrations were replaced by Christian events, but souvenir from the ancient beliefs survived during centuries. Thus, people have mixed their old cultures and beliefs with the new ones. For example, in France, from the 12th to the 18th century, the 2nd of February was often called, “Chandelours” (ours = bear) instead of “Chandeleur” (French name for Candlemas). Thus, in one word, souvenirs from old pagan cults to the light and/or to the bear were surviving through a Christian ceremony. And even today, some villages are still commemorating old traditions and rituals every year in February during bear festivals.
In North America, the Candlemas celebration has been replaced by the Groundhog Day. In a traditional very close to the beliefs related to the bears, people “believe” that this day marmots go out our their den to see if the winter is over. If the weather is clear and without clouds, the animal goes back to sleep 😉
Our bears are still sleeping and winter is obviously not finished, at least in Kuterevo where we are totally frozen with -20°C! But we will anyway eat crêpes tonight 😀