Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, has basically everything going for it that I love in a holiday: It marks a point in a season; it’s full of folklore and wisdom, superstition, ceremony, civic charm, science, 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 Groundhog Day!
In an early morning ceremony, groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will rise as he has for 125 years from his heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob, Pa., and signal to his handlers whether or not he sees his shadow. No shadow means an early end to winter. And if the groundhog does see his shadow? Six more long weeks of the season. Over the years that the ceremony has taken place, Phil has seen his shadow 98 times and not seen it only 17. (Records don’t exist for every year.) In 2008, the crowd heartily booed the prospect of “six more weeks of winter”.
Some have stated that Phil’s “handlers” make the prediction for him. What do we think of that?
History and science of Groundhog Day
According to this excellent Groundhog Day site, German settlers arrived in the 1700s to an area northeast of Pittsburgh, Pa. that had been settled previously 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 festivals, feasting, parades, and weather prediction, as well as candles and even bonfires to mark the sun’s return.
According to Wikipedia, “Imbolc” comes from an Old Irish word meaning “in the belly.” Among agrarian people, Imbolc was associated with the onset of the lambing season.
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. While this has always seemed counter-intuitive to me, this site explains the science of Groundhog Day and that cloudy weather is actually milder than clear and cold. It makes sense, then, that the shadow would portend six more weeks of winter. (A lifelong mystery is solved.)
The English and Scottish had wonderful sayings to mark this occasion:
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow