Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog Day

Today we celebrate the weather forecasting abilities of a rodent who should still be slumbering the winter away... Groundhogs usually hibernate until late March.  And we wonder why people in other countries think Americans are weird?

Photo by Fox News on Feb 2, 2018
Our most celebrated groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow on this sunny Pennsylvania morning (or at least it's sunny right now here in Mount Savage on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border) forecasting 6 more weeks of winter.  My first thought was "Ugh! Winter... I hope he's wrong."  Then I started to wonder how often he actually is right.  According to, Phil isn't very good at his job.  He's wrong even more than the TV weatherman, the one we curse for being so often wrong, with an accurate prediction of spring weather's arrival just 39% of the time.  That's worse than the 50/50 odds of flipping a coin!

But back to reveling in our oddity... According to legend, if our furry little rodent friend casts a shadow on February 2nd you should expect another 6 weeks of winter weather.  If there's no shadow, then you'll experience spring-like conditions.  Records of his predictions date back to the 1880s when German settlers meshed their Candlemas Day festivities with Native beliefs but it only gained great notoriety following the release of Bill Murray's 1993 comedy movie, Groundhog Day, where he plays a weatherman reliving the day over and over again.  Now thousands of people come from all over the country to this small town in Pennsylvania to gather on Gobbler's Knob and watch as poor Phil is pulled from his warm den to tell us when to expect Spring.  Interestingly, like many of our modern holidays, Groundhog Day is a meshing of ancient Pagan festivities with the beliefs of a local culture which was then Americanized as people left the Motherland in search of safety and/or prosperity.  Candlemas Day has roots in the Pagan holy day of Imbolc which marks the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.  Superstition held that if the day was sunny and bright, the second half of winter would be stormy and cold.  For early European Christians, it became customary to celebrate Candlemas Day by having a priest bless candles and distribute them to the community so a lit candle decorated a window of each home as a symbol of light overtaking dark just as the days began to lengthen.  Literally, it was a Candle Mass.  Some of the rhymes to help people remember this have also been saved, too.

In Old English...
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

And from Scotland...
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
There'll be two winters in the year.

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.

And, the early American twist...
If the sun shines on Groundhog Day;
Half the fuel and half the hay.

People who lived in rural areas not near enough to a church to participate in formal Candlemas Day celebrations marked the day by watching wild animals and whether or not they cast a shadow.  For Germans, it was a badger.  So, after they immigrated to America, the groundhog served as a replacement.  Woodchuck, which is how groundhogs are known locally, comes from the native Deleware word "wojak" and is important to the Tribe's creation beliefs.  According to the Deleware, woodchucks represent their ancestors from the time before they emerged from Mother Earth to live and hunt as humans.  They are descendants of the woodchuck.

And now you know what you're really celebrating... a mashup of weather predictions of Native ancestors on an old German holiday that's based on even older Pagan observances of solstices and equinoxes.

Can you get any more American?

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