In the 1979 Jack Frost, Jack spent some time trying to convince the groundhog to see his shadow so Jack could play for six more weeks. Apparently he wasn’t talking to Punxsutawney Phil this year, as Phil predicted that we would have an early spring. But why are we all listening to a groundhog again?
Groundhog Day was instituted on February 2nd in America in 1887. It was promoted by a Clymer Freas, editor of the paper Punxsutawney Spirit. He promoted the town’s groundhog as an “Groundhog Day meteorologist.”* One might wonder what gave Mr. Freas that idea.
The fact is that Pennsylvania was heavily settled by Germans, and Groundhog day was born out of their European traditions. February 2nd had many reasons for many being a good day for the holiday.
It is the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. It crossed two differing calendars about when the end of winter would actually be, and having the groundhog be the neutral arbitrator was a good folk solution to the dilemma. It was also once considered the date for re-establishing contracts and “reckoning debts”** between medieval European farmers and landowners. Additionally, the day also marks Candlemas. Candlemas is the holiday celebrating Mary’s presenting of Christ, and receiving her ritual purification. Blessed candles are given at churches for those observing the holiday. There is an old English song tying the holiday and the length of the winter together:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.**
The Scots had a similar ditty:
If Candlemas day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter to come and mair,
If Candlemas day be wet and foul,
The half of winter’s gone at Yule.**
Both verses are saying that if February 2nd is sunny and bright, winter will persist for six more weeks. But if it is cloudy and gray, spring will comer early. In Germany the traditional animal for the day was actually the badger; but as groundhogs were more plentiful in Pennsylvania, they became the animal of choice.
And they really were the animal of choice; for on the original menu for the day was the groundhog! Apparently he was nabbed after predicting the weather. Not very nice treatment, I say. These days Phil doesn’t have to worry about this, as he has achieved celebrity status. And although the average life span of the average groundhog is 6 years, there are claims that Punxsutawney Phil is 131 years old. They are definitely taking care of him now! And this year he promised a quick end to winter. Shall we believe him?