Today we’re migrating a little bit outside of New England proper and into territory which we’ll be covering more extensively at a later date. But in honor of Groundhog Day, I thought it would be fitting topay a visit to Punxatawney Phil, the ground-dwelling rodent whose annual weather prediction is the subject of great ceremony (and a rather funny film featuring Bill Murray).
Most people know the traditions associated with this holiday (or its sister holiday, Candlemas), but in case you have been living—like Phil–under a rock, in a cave, or in a town library attended to by men in top-hats—if the holiday marmot pokes his head outside after sunrise on February 2nd and sees his shadow, winter will linger for a while longer. If he doesn’t, you can expect an early spring. There are dozens of variations on the exact way to interpret that weather prediction. My personal favorite is the absurd truism “if he doesn’t see his shadow, only 6 weeks until spring; if he does, 6 more weeks of winter.” I’ve already referenced one proverb about this holiday in a previous post, but there are a couple of poems related to this holiday which illustrate its lore. The first is Scottish in origin:
“If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again”
And here’s one from 17th-century poet Robert Herrick (whom you may know as the author of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”):
“Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.”
The lore surrounding this day comes from a couple of key sources. The best known is probably the European tradition of the Candlemas Bear or Badger. These animals would stir (or in some cases, be coaxed) from their winter dormancy, and observers would make note of their reaction to the environment outside. Then a prediction of spring’s eventual arrival could be made and plans could be laid for things like tilling and planting crops. The selection of the groundhog as the New World substitute is outlined by Gerald C Milnes in his Signs, Cures, and Witchery:
“The badger was…used as a weather predictor in Germany, but in the New World, Pennsylvania Germans substituted the groundhog for this role because skunks [whose fat or ‘grease’ the author notes was used as Old World healers used badger fat], unlike badgers, do not hibernate…German Protestants brought the old weather-predicting tradition to Pennsylvania, where it is still actively observed in some German communities. Groundhogs were substituted for the badger (and bear) traditions o fEurope. Now the hibernating groundhog has their supposed powers to predict the weather.”
But why did this holiday catch on so widely when so many other holidays and traditions—such as First Footing or Belsnicking (see Milne for more on this mumming tradition)—remained highly localized? Well, it is certainly a fun holiday, and seems antiquated without being stuffy. In Punxatawney, Phil is cared for by a group known as the Inner Circle, town elders who dress formally for the occasion of Phil’s prognostication in what sometimes seems a silly parody of Lodge traditions like the Masons. The general good humor of the occasion (other than the poor rodent, who probably just wants to go back to sleep) has likely fueled its popularity. But my favorite explanation comes from Jack Santino, in his book All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life:
“In spite of all this obvious phoniness, we still pay attention to the groundhog’s prediction, as trumped up as it may be. This probably has to do with the fact that Groundhog Day is the first time that we direct our attention in any formal way towards the coming, much-anticipated spring. It works for us because after a long January, winter is getting old. February is a difficult month to get through, even though it is short. Any indication of an early spring is eagerly welcomed, and Groundhog Day is the first tentative look ahead.”
Santino also connects the groundhog’s celebration to another February holiday: Valentine’s day. He notes that the original date for Groundhog Day (in the pre-Gregorian calendar) was on the 13th or 14th of February. Likewise, the Candlemas bear became a diminished cutie—the teddy bear often given to a loved one on Valentine’s. I find this connection a bit tenuous, but fun to consider nonetheless.
I should also note that Phil is not the sole weather-predicting critter in the business today. There are also such famed meteorological marmots as Buckeye Chuck (in Ohio, naturally), Woodstock Willie (Illinois), and Balzac Billy (in Alberta). Silly as all this may be, I would once again submit that the attentive witch can learn something on Groundhog Day. Sure, there’s the witchy notion that observing the animals can help predict future events, but I’m more inclined to say the lesson here is that sometimes, it’s okay to smile and laugh at tradition. There’s a time and a place for the somber and serious, but there’s also a time and a place for a little mirth in the mix.
For those seeking to balance Groundhog Day out with something a little more significant, Candlemas itself is still a holiday for Catholics, as well as some Protestant denominations and even some Pagans and neo-Pagans (myself included). In the Christian tradition this is the day for the presentation of Jesus at the temple by his mother, Mary. Christians bring candles to the church to be blessed so that they can be burned throughout the year for loved ones. Many neo-Pagans celebrate the first or second day of February as Imbolg, dedicating it to goddesses like Brigid or Hestia. All of them, though, share something in common with Phil: they’re all looking forward to warmer days and brighter times.
So whatever you’re celebrating today—Groundhog Day, Imbolg, Candlemas, or even an early Lupercalia—I wish you a joyous day and a warm fire to keep you through the remains of winter.
Thanks for reading!