Why all the fuss about whether or not this rodent sees his shadow?
February 2 isn’t “just” Groundhog Day and a holiday made by humans to break up the middle of cold winter season. It’s actually an occurrence in nature that humans have observed and found reason to celebrate long before people in Punxsutawney wanted to bring tourists to their little settlement in the woods of Western Pennsylvania.
February 2 is exactly halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, marking the date that winter, literally, becomes spring, and is the year’s first cross-quarter day. The seasons don’t change as if you’ve flipped a switch, but they move gradually from one to another in a cycle. The solstices and equinoxes mark the highest points of those seasons, and the cross-quarter markers in between mark the day one season has clearly blended with another. I notice this every year from my garden to the trail to just observing wildlife.
By February 2, in our modern time we notice the days have lengthened enough that there really is daylight when we leave work at the end of the day where just a week before it was still pretty dark. Ancient and not-so-ancient people saw it another way.
Nearly every culture and faith tradition has a name and celebration for this event. At the Winter Solstice, the sun stood still just long enough to make civilizations think it may have stopped moving, leaving us to suffer in the darkness and cold of winter. Then it began slowly moving again, the days lengthening so gradually that all we may notice is perhaps feeling better because there is more daylight, but ancient cultures centered feast days and celebrations around the return of life.
The full moon in February is often called the Hunger Moon because, though people have managed through the deepest extended cold of winter, their food stores put by at the previous autumn’s harvest may be near gone:
Half your wood and half your hay,
you should have on Candlemas Day.
February lies ahead, often as frozen as January with not much nourishment in sight for hunter-gatherer or agrarian societies until the first edible greens begin to sprout, about a month away in early March, later in far north regions. Animals are often just as undernourished as humans, female animals are often bearing young, so hunting is usually out of the question. Yet the end was in sight and that alone was reason to celebrate in the harsh world before furnaces in the house and cars for travel and grocery stores offering food all year round.
And beneath the snow plants are gathering energy, seeds are swelling, roots are spreading, and above the snow the days are growing longer. The ewes, cows, goats and the females of other livestock as well as of wild animals are beginning to produce milk in preparation for the birth of their young later in the spring.
So this day has many names to commemorate all these observations that would become celebrations to humans weary of the cold and dark: Immolc or Imbolc, translated from “in the belly” referring to mothers and their young, and the first production of milk in preparation for birth; Brigantia or St. Brigid’s Day, who welcomes the light with candles and represents the light half of the year; and Candlemas when candles for the year are blessed celebrating Jesus’ presentation at the temple and the purification of Mary are the ones best known in Western culture.
Another traditional rhyme shows us that the day had become one for prognosticating:
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.
And before English and German settlers began landing on these shores, they were keeping an eye on the hedgehogs to determine if the little buggers saw their shadow on Candlemas or Brigantia morn. Other animals leave their burrows around this time as well—it’s snakes in another tradition—and you’ll often see birds pairing off. It doesn’t always happen exactly on February 2, but because the day was a longstanding cross-quarter day in the ancient calendar it’s carried the reputation of being a day for prognostication and celebration.
As with most other traditions, taking stock of things on February 2 came over on the boat with those early English and German settlers, and Pennsylvania still has many towns and neighborhoods settled all those years ago dedicated to these nationalities.
So why a groundhog? Why not a groundhog? They don’t get a whole lot of credit for anything else, especially not in my garden! This is one day when a fat, smelly, not-so-pretty North American native that reminds us of a large rat can get some respect and news coverage, and that’s never a bad thing for anyone. Really, they’re kind of cute and silly, especially when they’re little, they only become oily undulating eating machines in late summer when it breaks my heart to find all the beans I’d been looking forward to are reduced to bare stems.
Why Punxsutawney? Why do they wear top hats and dress coats? You can read about the Groundhog Day tradition and about Punxsutawney on the “official website of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” http://www.groundhog.org/.
And with that, I hope it’s another year before I have to type the name Punxsutawney again.
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