Groundhog Day, February 2, has basically everything going for it that I love in a holiday — It marks a point in a season; it’s full of folk lore and wisdom, superstition, ceremony, civic charm, mystery, agrarian history, and weather — and it was featured in perhaps my all-time favorite movie of the same name, which itself is a study in acceptance and inner calm while being outright hilarious in nearly every frame.
Altogether now: It’s Ground-Hog Day!
In an early morning ceremony today, groundhog Punxatawney Phil rose from his heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob, PA, and signaled to his handlers that the shadow he saw foretold six more weeks of winter. According to this excellent Groundhog Day almanac, Phil sees his shadow 6-7 times more than he doesn’t. The last time he didn’t see a shadow was in 2007. In 2008, the crowd booed the prospect of a continuing winter.
According to the Groundhog Day site and others, German settlers arrived in the 1700s in the area of Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh, which had been previously settled by the Delaware Native Americans. The Germans celebrated Candlemas Day, originally a Medieval Catholic holiday to mark the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The holiday also has roots in Celtic-Gaelic and Pagan cultures, where it is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, and is a time of festival, feasting, parades, and weather prediction, as well as candles and even bonfires to mark the sun’s return.
According to Wikipedia, the origin of the word “Imbolc” is “in the belly”, and among agrarian people, Imbolc was associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, which would soon give birth to lambs in the spring.
The German settlers of Pennsylvania put candles in their windows and believed that if the weather was fair on Candlemas Day, then the second half of winter would be stormy and cold. (This has always been counter-intuitive to me, but I am not agrarian nor Medieval Christian, nor even from a wintry climate.) The shadow of the sun on February 2nd? Six more weeks of winter.
** Breaking news. This site explains that cloudy weather is actually more mild than clear and cold. It makes sense, then, that the shadow would portend six more weeks of winter. A lifelong mystery is solved.
I found English and Scottish sayings, to this effect:
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
— Scottish saying
(Note the serpent instead of the groundhog.)
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
— English saying
Punxatawney’s first Groundhog Day celebration was in 1886, and though other towns, particularly in the eastern U.S., have Groundhog Day ceremonies, none is nearly as famous as Punxataney’s. Some of this may lie with the groundhog’s official name, “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary”. Still more popularity, and tourists, have come as a result of the movie Groundhog Day. The first official Groundhog Day prediction in Punxatawney? No shadow – early Spring.
If you are a Groundhog Day movie obsessive like me, you will enjoy this site that breaks down exactly how long Bill Murray’s character, Phil the Weatherman, experiences Groundhog Day in Gobbler’s Knob.
Shadow or no, here’s wishing you a happy remainder of the winter, a ceremony or two, a dash of lore and wonder, and a fruitful spring.
Photos: Aaron Silvers, Creative Commons