Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Groundhog's Day?

Have you ever wondered about Groundhog's Day? How did it get started and why? I wonder about it just about every year when it sneaks up on us, but I never bothered to research it...until now. The wheels started turning when I read about St. Brigid's Day in Cindy Thomson's Celtic Wisdom. According to some ancient customs, on St. Brigid's Day, or Imbolc (Feb. 1), mild weather was predicted if a hedgehog was seen.  On the other hand, more bad weather was expected if he hurried back to his burrow.

The hedgehog idea apparently spread around Europe, and so the Germans who settled in Pennsylvania get credit for switching over to groundhogs, since hedgehogs aren't native to North America. The earliest known written reference (in the Americas) to the German tradition is found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College, in a diary of Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris: "Last Tuesday, the 2nd, 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."

Other sources said that the Imbolc tradition once had to do with a serpent coming out of his hole. An old Scots Gaelic proverb states:
Thig an nathair as an toll

Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.

"The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride (Bridget),
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground."
Since there weren't any serpents in Ireland, I don't understand this one. Not much wonder they changed to hedgehogs and badgers.

February 2 is also known as Candlemas. Originally, it was a day to commemorate the end of the Christmas season. It marks 40 days after the birth of Jesus, which would mean the final day of purification for Mary in the Jewish culture. That meant it was the first time she could enter the Temple as clean, so this is commemorated as the day Jesus was presented in the Temple and seen by Anna and Simeon (Luke 2: 22-38). 'Way back when, the Christian, pagan and just folklore traditions got jumbled together, and in the process hibernating animals became connected to ideas about the end of winter and the beginning of Spring. I mention Candlemas because I found a couple of sayings pertaining to that and the weather. For example, in England it was said that
If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
From Germany, the saying goes
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,

So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

The journey to Punxatawney Phil meanders from Ireland to Germany to Pennsylvania, mixing various cultures, traditions and animals, but always with hopes of a short winter. My parting thought: why do people always say  there are six more weeks of winter if the groundhog sees his shadow but never go on to state what will happen if there is no shadow? I've finished the saying this way: If the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter; but if he doesn't see a shadow, there will only be a month and a half more of winter.


Laura Davis said...

Thanks Cathi for this interesting bit of history. In Canada our groundhog is white and is known as Wiarton Willy.

cathikin said...

That's cool! I have heard the name of one they use here in Cincinnati, but I can't remember it. It isn't catching on like Phil; I couldn't even find it when I Googled.

Cindy Thomson said...

Nice post, Cathi! This is what I was going to talk about on my blog today, but I can do better! :)