I was preparing our lessons for tomorrow. We are studying animals that hybernate – – and since Groundhog Day was yesterday, I thought it all fit together nicely. Here is the history I found, pertaining to this weather-predicting holiday. Enjoy!
Since 1887, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club in western Pennsylvania have tried to note the first appearance of the rodent they call Punxsutawney Phil. If Phil comes out of his burrow into sunlight on February 2nd and spies his own shadow, he’s said to jump back down underground — dooming us all to six more weeks of winter. On the other hand, a cloudy Groundhog Day forecasts an early spring. Today Punxsutawney Phil lives in a climate-controlled habitat adjoining the Punxsutawney Library. A local celebrity, he gained national fame in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day (which was shot in scenic Woodstock, Illinois). The weather-watching rodent’s predictions are recorded in the Congressional Records of our National Archive. So far, Phil has seen his shadow about 85% of the time.
The groundhog’s reputation as a weather prophet came to the U.S. in the mid-18th century with German immigrants, known as Pennsylvania Dutch. They had regarded the badger as the winter-spring barometer, and reassigned the job to the groundhog after importing their Candlemas traditions to the U.S. Other Europeans used the bear or hedgehog — but in any case it belonged to a creature that hibernated. Its emergence symbolized the imminent arrival of spring.
But this is really a very old holiday — one that has its roots in astronomy. February 2nd is one of four cross-quarter days. It lies about halfway between a solstice and an equinox.
In Ireland, February 1st is the feast day of Saint Brigit, the spiritual protector of sheep and cattle. According to tradition, she was born at sunrise as her mother, a Druid’s slave, carried milk across the threshold of her master’s house. In the same way, her feast falls on a seasonal crossroads — between winter and spring. When winter is fading and the power of the spring sun is increasing. Prior to the conversion of the Irish Celts, Saint Brigit’s Day was known as Imbolc, one of four seasonal junctions in the pagan calendar of Ireland. It was the start of spring, and its name refers to “ewes’ milk” and to the birth of farm animals. Imbolc was dedicated to the Celtic goddess Brigit, who was associated with learning, poetry, crafts and healing. Many of her pagan characteristics were retained when she was made a saint.
Groundhog Day is also the secular incarnation of Candlemas celebrated in England, where it marked the beginning of spring. Candlemas is a traditional Christian festival that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of Jesus. It also marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. Christians were observing this holiday in Jerusalem at least as early as the 4th century A.D. By the middle of the 5th century, candles were lit on this day to symbolize the association of light with Christ. Despite its place on the Christian calendar, Candlemas also has pagan roots. The ancient Romans observed the beginning of spring on February 5th — they tidied farm and field and closed the year with a purification festival. The Armenian Church held an ancient fire-god festival each February 2nd. Future weather was forecasted by the behavior of smoke blown from fires lit in church courtyards.
Try this old English rhyme — “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”
Or here’s another old saying — “Half your wood and half your hay, You should have on Candlemas Day.”
In Germany it used to be said that “a shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than see the sun shine.” A German badger was said to watch for his shadow. The National Geographic Society once studied the groundhog — and found him to be correct only one out of every three times. One final note. It’s supposed to be bad luck to leave your Christmas decorations up after today.