Groundhog day falls on the second of February, a cross quarter day between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. A day where a furry little rodent comes out of his burrow and sniffs at the air as crowds gather around in anticipation as to whether he sees his shadow or not. Depending on the little critters behavior, it is said to determine whether we get an early spring, or six more weeks of winter. Groundhog day can be traced back to the 18th Century, started by the Dutch/German immigrant communities in southeastern and central Pennsylvania, but its origins are thought to be much, much older.
Many cultures watch for the appearance of hibernating creatures to signal the end of winter, but it is parts of the Gaelic festival of Imbolc that seem to be the most likely precursor of Groundhog day as we know it today. Imbolc was the time when people would start to watch and see if the badgers and snakes would emerge from their burrows to signify the coming of spring:
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground
From: Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, by Alexander Carmicheal
In the Scottish Highland’s, they were a little more proactive about their weather divination, pounding on the tops of burrows with their staffs to scare the snake out. Once the snake emerged, they would watch its behavior to determine whether spring was on the way.
There is also a tale told about Cailleach, the divine hag of Gaelic folklore. It is said that if winter is going to linger, she will ensure a sunny day on Imbolc so that she can go and gather more firewood to keep warm; if the day is cloudy then she is still asleep as she has enough wood to last.
This is the basic premise of Groundhog day: if it is cloudy there will be no shadow, if it is sunny there will be. So, while technically one could just look at the sky and calculate the same result, it is much more fun to have a celebration involving a top-hatted ringmaster and an obscure rodent. It is also important to remember how many of the ideas and celebrations now considered tradition stem from migrants who brought their own ideas with them and reworked them into the fabric of their contemporary societies.
On a complete side note… I never knew a groundhog was the same creature as the woodchuck until I wrote this piece, nor had I ever answered the burning question from my schoolyard playground as to exactly “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”?
It turns out I know that too now, thanks to wildlife technician Richard Thomas, who calculated that on a good day it could be nearly 700 pounds (320 kg).
Chuck on that!
And stay warm…