It’s that time of year again – everybody (really everybody?!) will be waiting for the verdict of a tiny animal that lives in the Pennsylvanian town of the name Punxsutawney (‘punk-suh-‘taw-nee). February 2 is traditionally Groundhog Day, and the little critter allegedly predicts whether winter will last. This is how it works: If it sees its shadow when emerging from its den, winter will last for six more weeks, but if there is no shadow due to an overcast sky, spring will be arriving early. Maybe the clear sky speaks for cold air? And the six weeks might be something that has been experienced. I wonder whether a groundhog is needed to make the prediction.
For whatever reason, Groundhog Day has first been observed by German settlers in the US, the first one being mentioned in 1840 by a Welsh journal writer. It would take almost 50 more years until it made it into the papers and became the celebration it is today. The Punxsutawnee groundhog received the generic name Phil in 1961, and one might guess whether that is a questionable homage to the British queen consort or just because it is such a lovely, cute being, the Greek syllable “phil” meaning “love”. Nobody knows, but I’m definitely not with the royalty approach – why would a democratic republic call anything in homage to an aristocrat (except, of course, food like Boeuf Stroganoff or Beef Wellington, but that’s a different topic).
Last year I saw an actual Groundhog Day life stream on the internet and thousands of people gathered in that Pennsylvanian town. I didn’t see Bill Murray on that life stream – well, that would be the only reason for me to make that trip in mid-winter, I guess. And there are a lot of other towns in the US who lay claim to a Groundhog Day celebration, though none are getting as much attention as Punxsutawnee.
What is it with February 2 as a date, though? Ah, there’s the real connection. The ancient Romans held parades in honor of goddess Februa, which might have been of Celtic or Germanic origin. In Germany, February 2 is also known as Candlemas, the end of Christmas season, 40 days after Christmas Day; according to the Bible, it was the day when Mary presented Jesus at the temple and was purified. In Ireland, February 1 used to mark the beginning of spring and therefore seeding season. There have been couplets on Candlemas weather prediction in different European countries. And whereas in Germany a badger used to be observed as to its behavior, in Ireland it was a hedgehog, and in Scotland it would have been a snake. For the ancient Celts, February 2 was simply the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox. I find it quite revealing that the Catholic church made use of that date and placed Candlemas on top of the old pagan tradition. The blessing of candles for the entire year reflects on Jesus symbolizing the Light of the World.
Back to Groundhog Day, though. It’s so very obviously an agricultural thing. A hibernating animal emerges from its winter-proof home and either stays outside or returns. Basically, it’s a sign for the farmers to get their fields prepared for the first seeding. Plowing lies in the air. But Phil has erred in the past, and meteorologists rather rely on a certain number of days above 40 degrees Fahrenheit than a furry critter who might just have woken from hunger and, finding nothing outside its den, prefers to return inside. Wise decision that when winter is not over for another 40 days till the equinox. But then the groundhog doesn’t know this either. So far, nobody has found a calendar in their dens.