Groundhog Day 2012

The much-celebrated and ballyhooed Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this morning thereby foretelling six more weeks of hard winter weather. Well, here in North Texas the winter has been astonishingly mild, days averaging the mid-seventies. But for those who set store by the groundhog-as-weatherman, Phil’s shadow is most unwelcome.

So why is today identified as Groundhog Day? What’s that all about anyway? And what about the fact the February 2nd was known as Candlemas in olden times? As with so many apparently simple things, the explanation is a bit involved and convoluted.

An old English rhyme states:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

In the Liturgical Calendar of the Church, the second of February was designated “the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.” The Mosaic Laws of the Old testament decreed that a woman was “unclean” for seven days following the birth of a male child, and that she must stay away from the Temple for a further 33 days, making the period for ritual cleansing a total of forty days. (The period was twice that long if the baby was a female! Gender equality was decidely NOT an Old Testament concept.) At the end of this term, the mother would return to the Temple to make a sacrifice concluding her purification, and to present her child to the Temple community.

From the very earliest days of the Christian Church, the feast of The Presentation (or Purification) was an important event on the Liturgical Calendar. By the end of the Fourth Century A.D., the date of Christ’s birth had been set as December 25; calculating forty days from that date produced February second as the date for The Presentation. So far, so good?

Because this Feast celebrated the entry of The Christ – The Light of the World – into the Temple and the greater world, it became traditional by the Eleventh Century to bless the candles that were to be used in the upcoming year. Originally, just the official church candles were blessed, but eventually household candles were included as well. The Priest would bless all the candles presented, intoning the words: “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israel” (A Light to reveal You to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”)

Possibly because the theme of this Feast was the entry of The Light into the world, or possibly because of older pagan traditions about mid-Winter – opinions are highly diverse about this – there was a tradition in lower Germany that if a certain animal should see its shadow on Candlemas day, it presaged six weeks of severe Winter weather. Again, details are hard to come by, but some sources specify that the animal in question should be a badger, others state that it should be a hedgehog. (Both of these animals “hibernate” in the Winter and very often are not awake to be looking around at shadows in early February.)

When William Penn invited German immigrants from the Pfaltz to settle in his new colony, Pennsylvania, the new arrivals carried their homeland traditions with them, including the notion that February second was an important day for weather forecasting. Hedgehogs not being found in the New World, and Badgers still sleeping away their Winter typically, a local substitute was found: the humble woodchuck or groundhog (Marmota monax.)

The first extant mention of Groundhog Day can be read at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center. It says: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, (February 1841) was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

In any case, the tradition was a highly localized phenomenon, and not widely observed in Colonial America, nor during the years leading up to the Civil War. But, as so often happens, a good promotional campaign took a local tradition and turned into a national event. A couple of Pennsylvania newspaper publishers decided to make a genuine event of “Groundhog Day,” and Pennsylvania’s first formal celebration of Groundhog Day began on February second, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas.

Because of the novelty of the celebration and its homegrown character, early telegraph news services spread the story as human interest “filler” for their subscribers. By the late 1890s, Groundhog day was known across the United States. In the days when radio was the major mass medium, Groundhog Day was duly reported, but it took the advent of television to make a real national spectacle of the occasion. For Groundhog Day 2001, an estimated 35,000 people gathered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania just to see what the Groundhog would see.

And, just FYI: no meaningful correlation has ever been made between the Groundhog’s prognosis and the actual weather subsequently recorded! But, I must ask: what else would one expect from a giant rodent?

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” — Percy Bysshe Shelly

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