A MYTH OF GROUNDHOGS
As I mentioned in a previous column on winter many of our Christian celebrations revolve around astronomical events. Well believe it or not, there is a connection between Groundhog Day, Jesus Christ and the journey of the earth around the sun.
February the second marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. In an alternative way of measuring time, February 2nd marks the beginning of spring. The March 21st equinox is the climax of spring. The midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice is October 31st. using this system Hallowe’en starts winter and Groundhog Day starts spring. This sure makes sense in coastal Marin.
In our Christian culture we call February 2nd Candlemas. It is also known as the fortieth day of Christmas, the Purification of the Virgin Mary or Presentation of the Child.
In some pre-Christian European cultures, especially in Germany, there was a custom of watching the badger come out of hibernation on the first of February to inspect the weather. The good Christian missionaries on advice from Pope Gregory the First did not crush this myth but instead they subverted it and consecrated the day to Christ. The locals could watch the badger and worship Jesus all on the same day. Smart pope.
The English have a rhyme, which illustrates the belief in the power of this day:
If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o` winter’s to come and mair; (sic)
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gone at Yule.
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.
In North America the natives had a similar myth. But instead of the badger it was the bear. It is interesting that this same concept evolved in two entirely different cultures. Many peoples perceive, perhaps correctly, that animals have a special sense about the weather.
Our current custom was brought to the United States by English and Germans settlers. They changed the badger into the groundhog and presto! a new holiday. One of the very first celebrations occurred in Pennsylvania Dutch (really Deutch for German) settlements of Lancaster County in 1887. The town now closely associated with Groundhog Day is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
The popularity of His Majesty, the Punxsutawney Groundhog, has swelled enormously. Reporters, radio disc jockeys and television personalities descend upon the town and its chief citizen. Every February 2nd His Majesty emerges from his burrow, if he sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter weather. But if it is cloudy he will return to his burrow for a long sleep and there will be an early and mild spring.
Never mind that a study of 60 years of weather prognosticating by these royal groundhogs revealed an accuracy of just 28%. The allegiance of the faithful remains unbroken. This is the creed of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge:
We believe in the wisdom of the groundhog.
We declare his intelligence to be of a higher order than that of any other animal…
We rejoice that he can, and does, foretell with absolute accuracy the weather conditions for the six weeks following each second day of February…
To defend him, his family and his reputation, we pledge ourselves…….
We do not have groundhogs in California. A close relative, the yellow‑bellied marmot, is found high in the Sierra Nevada. However these marmots usually sleep right through February. Unfortunately we’ll have to content ourselves with overpaid television meteorologists for weather predicting. And I have never heard anyone say a pledge of allegiance to Pete Giddings.