Here at Indigo Night, we're looking forward to 2 astronomical events that occur in early February -- Groundhog Day and Chinese New Year.

Wait!  Groundhog Day an astronomical event?  How can waiting for a hibernating varmint to venture out of his winter quarters be tied to the Sun, Moon and the stars?

Groundhog Day is an Americanization of an ancient holiday that has been celebrated for millennia.  In Medieval Europe, they might have called it Imbolc, Candlemas, or St. Brigid's Day.  One of the 4 cross-quarter days -- so called because they fell half-way between the equinoxes and solstices -- Imbolc would take take place on the day when the sun reached 315 degrees. 

To ancient cultures, cross-quarter days were arguably as important as the quarter days.  Imbolc means "ewe's milk" in Celtic;  if you belonged to a herding culture in Medieval Europe, precisely when the ewes lactated, just prior to their lambs' birthing, would be a defining moment, considered a sign of the end of winter and the coming of Spring.  In addition to purifying their homes and themselves, celebrants would seek other divinations, or signs, for the season ahead.  Hence we arrive at the importance of the groundhog to a day that has its foundations in our ancient ancestors' astonomical knowledge and agricultural heritage.  Most of us have don't get a chance to learn first-hand whether the ewes are lactacting, so Punxsutawney Phil got the job as seasonal prognosticator. 

 

Beltane in May, Lammas in August, and Samhain in October are the other cross-quarter days, also marking the end of the preceding season and the beginning of the next.  For those of us who think of the equinoxes and solstices as marking the beginning and ending of the seasons, this might be confusing.  How can spring begin in February when the vernal equinox doesn't occur until March 21/22?  But here's another way of looking at it:  how can we say that summer begins on June 21/22 when the temperatures are telling us summer has already arrived?   Here in Virginia, the first cool nights hinting of Autumn's approach typically arrive the first full week of August, about the time when the Sun has reached 135 degrees. 

Unsurprisingly, given that the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar, Chinese New Year is also tied to the cross-quarter day.  Although what's celebrated by Asian cultures is a lunar new year, this day is fixed as being the new moon that occurs during the first solar term.  The solar new year, otherwise known as Lichun or Farmer's Day, is celebrated on February 4, when the Sun is at 315 degrees.  The lunar new year follows soon after, on February 10.

This year, the 4711th year of the Chinese calendar, is the year of the Black Water Snake. Whether you're a Pig, a Dragon, a Monkey, or a Rooster, may you find signs of health, wealth, longevity, peace, and wisdom all around you on Groundhog's Day and throughout 2013.