Groundhog Prognosticators

Rob Morris

[reposted for 2012 without alteration from 2011]

It’s Groundhog Day!  I know…it’s hard to contain your excitement.  It’s that day each year when a mammal is held up in front of a crowd of people.  If it’s a sunny day and the groundhog cared about such things, he could see his shadow and we would have more wintery weeks ahead.  If the sun was blocked, no shadow and thus spring would arrive soon.  A bit of a strange ritual.  But it actually has roots that go back a long way.

Groundhog Day began centuries ago as a variation on Candlemas, an ancient European holiday.  According to an old English song:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

The early Germans appear to be the first ones to adopt the use of an animal, specifically a hedgehog in their celebration, perhaps due to animals often being able to detect weather changes and other events before humans.  Many of Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers were Germans and brought the traditions with them, adapting the similar groundhog to the role.

But then we have to wonder, what’s so special about that day that makes it the source of all these traditions?  Well, it’s actually the same reason for our celebrations of Halloween.  These are surviving Pagan holidays known as Cross-quarter Days.  They occur in the middle of a season, between the solstices and equinoxes.  February 2nd is approximately the middle point between the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21st) and the Spring Equinox (March 20th).  Think about it this way…have you ever wondered why Winter begins on Dec. 21st, but it feels like Winter well before that?  It always seems like we get the first snow of the year on Halloween…a cross-quarter day.  They were originally the markers of the beginnings of the seasons.  But, over the years, their significance was lost compared to their more astronomically important cousins and the more significant celebrations that occurred at those times.

Paying homage to Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day" on this chilly day in February.

Paying homage to "Groundhog Day" on this chilly day in February. Image from the 1993 Columbia Pictures film.

In the end though, if I were to stand outside this morning holding a rodent up and looking for its shadow, I should remember that I live in one of those weird mountain states.  Seasons seem to do whatever they feel like, fluctuating between Summer and Winter from one day to the next.

But that doesn’t make the holiday any less fun to celebrate.  Have a safe and fun Groundhog Day, Candlemas Day, Cross-quarter Day, or Wednesday…whichever you like best.

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