Groundhog Day -- Why?
by Johnny Gunn
It is among the least observed "special" days that are marked on calendars and yet its background is amazingly complex involving pagans, churches, even epochs. In this country it is also among the very few "days" that are not politically involved. In the U.S. we call it Groundhog Day and use a Marmot for the celebration. Marmots are also known as Woodchucks. And Groundhogs. In mountainous country they are best known as bear food and only rarely as people food. So, thus we begin a tale that wanders about and reaches no conclusions. (Does that remind you of a recent movie?) A tale filled with urban legend, little history, but does include at least one Goddess.
Modern civilization is slowly eroding festivals and special occasions by way of technology. Weather forecasting, despite all our wonderful jokes, has become as close to a science as possible, and things like solstices, equinoxes, and the midpoints between those events have been dulled into comedy and nonsense. February 2, which we celebrate as Groundhog Day is midway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, and in antiquity the date had a specific meaning, which is lost to us today. Prehistoric cultures depended on knowing the seasons, for hunting, for planting, and in many cases, for finding that elusive mate. And, even as today, any excuse for a party, eh?
A pagan, or heathen, is said to be one who has no religion, but when historians talk of seasonal celebrations, they generally include specific religious festivities, albeit not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other of today's religions. Thus Groundhog Day started out in life as a "pagan" celebration as a means of determining what the rest of the winter season might bring. The myth is, if a hibernating animal emerges from its den and sees its shadow, the rest of the winter will be severe. If it is cloudy and stormy, winter will not be as severe for the rest of the season.
Here's the fun part that we don't often hear about: from February 2 to March 21 is six weeks. Yes, dear heart, regardless of what that furry little critter sees, winter will end in six weeks. But will that period be stormy or gentle in nature. That is the job of the burrowing animal. In Celtic times, and in other parts of Europe and Asia, many different animals were used as sensors; the one defining characteristic being, the animal was almost always a burrowing type. Badgers were often the animal of choice as were bears, bob cats, squirrels, and other rodents. If the weather was fierce at their emergence, they headed right back to sleep for a while; otherwise they groggily attempted to rejoin the world.
Now, about that goddess. In Ireland the pre Christians celebrated a deity they called Brigit, a patroness if you will of poetry and song, of healing arts, and of iron and other metal smiths. The midpoint celebration we call Groundhog Day was celebrated as Brigit's Day, and priestesses, never any men, kept watch over flames that burned in her honor throughout the land. Brigit was considered the patron of midwives in the Celtic lands and some say that the word bride is a derivative of her name.
In celebration of Brigit's Day great bon fires were lit and tended whilst keeping a close eye on the weather. In most Celtic lands the season of midpoint between winter and spring can be cold, wet, blustery, and cold, and wet. It is lambing season, it is time for preparation of planting, and it seems, Brigit held some sway over the claiming of brides. As with so many of the pre Christian festivals held throughout what we consider pagan civilizations, when Christianity arrived, the festivals were literally absorbed into the religion. Brigit became St. Brigit.
From bon fire to candles, the church also took away the pagan rites of fire and turned it into what is called Candlemas Day, a blessing of candles. The people put their blessed candles in windows lighting up the villages; candles used in liturgical events were especially blessed. The weather traditions became part of the church festival as noted by an ancient English poem:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
An old American couplet indicates early thoughts about economics in the Colonies:
If the sun shines on Groundhog Day,
Half the fuel and half the hay.
How did America's Groundhog Day celebration come to be centered in Pennsylvania? German immigrants brought their Candlemas traditions with them, decided it was safer to use a groundhog rather than their traditional badger for the weather vane, and the midpoint celebration spread across the country. Of course the celebration has had a little help along the way. The first "official" celebration of Groundhog Day in the U.S. was held on February 2, 1886, and you guessed it, in Punxsutawney, PA.
Clymer Freas was the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit in those days and he wrote, "Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow." The Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College has a complete library on the subject. For instance, in 1841, a Morgantown, PA business man wrote on February 4, "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."
The lads and lasses of Punxsutawney, PA have taken charge of the celebration ever since and have named their little furry piece of bear food "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary."
So, the Celts and other "pagans" celebrated the midpoint by way of Brigit's Day, the Roman Church by way of Candlemas day, and the rest by way of Groundhog Day. The Germans brought it to these shores and their little ditty about February 2 pretty much sums up the situation:
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far with the snow swirl until May.