Annually celebrated in United States and Canada on February 2nd, Groundhog Day is a well known holiday that revolves around the popular weather lore of the coming out of a groundhog from its burrow on this date to look for its shadow. The winter is nearing an end if the groundhog sees its shadow and if it retreats into its hole in its absence the cold season is likely to continue for 6 more weeks.
The Origins & Beliefs
Groundhog Day, celebrated across the United States and Canada, is purely a North American tradition. It is based on a belief that on this day (February 2nd) the groundhog, or woodchuck, comes out of hole after winter hibernation to look for its shadow. If the shadow is seen, it's a sunny day. And the groundhog foretells 'six more weeks of bad weather' and thus a lingering winter. But spring is coming if no shadow is seen because of clouds. The groundhog then behaves accordingly. It goes back into the hole if the weather turns bad, but stays above ground if spring is near.
Thus weather prediction or prognostication came as an integral feature of Groundhog Day tradition. This prediction owes its origin to the European tradition of Candlemas. There is an old European supposition that a sunny Candlemas day would lead the winter to last for 'another six weeks'. Also celebrated on February 2, the was used to commemorate the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Candles for sacred uses were blessed on this day. Gradually the traditions at this Candlemas came to associate with them different folklores. The German added the belief of an animal, initially a hedgehog, being frightened by his shadow on Candlemas would foretell that winter would last another six weeks. This belief was brought in America during the 18th Century by the German settlers. These settlers adopted the groundhog as their weather predictor.
Groundhog Day came into being in North America during the late 1800s. Thanks to the combined effort of Clymer H. Freas, a newspaper editor, and W. Smith, an American Congressman and newspaperpublisher. They organized and popularized a yearly festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the State was populated predominantly by German settlers. The festival featured a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil which used to foretell how long the winter would last. This very popular event is still being held and is called Groundhog Day.
There has been a concerted effort in popularizing and commercializing the Groundhog Day across the United States. Chuck Wood is The Committee for the commercialization of Groundhog Day's official mascot. The movie "Groundhog Day," has played a key role in popularizing the schedule of Events in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on and around February 2. Apart from Pennsylvania, fascinating Groundhog Day events are also held in other states, especially, Nebraska, Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio, Arkansas, and California.
Groundhog Day is also very popular in Canada and Wiarton Willy is the Groundhog that is used to predict the length of winter over there.
Trailing The Tradition
Historically the month of February bears a special significance to the people in the North. This is evident through various traditions and rites prevalent in this part of the world for thousands of years.
Predicting the onset of the Spring had been a common practice even in the ancient times as much of the harvest yield was hinged on the change on weather.
The ancient civilizations would greet this time of the year by performing rites to the rising power of the springtime sun. And these rites were agricultural in nature and performed mostly by the farmers.
The earlier Romans in the pre-Christian era celebrated February 1 as the Feast of Lights. Lighted torches were carried in procession in a springtime rebirth ritual. The tradition witnessed a carryover in the Christian era and was glorified by linking it with Christ. For, what we celebrate as the Groundhog Day these days has since long been celebrated as the Candlemas across Europe.
A clear, sunny day on a Candlemas was one of the worst things that could happen. Fair conditions would bring at least forty more days of snowy, rigorous winter. On the other hand, an overcast and generally miserable Candlemas promised a fat and early summer.
An old tradition was that Christmas decorations were taken down by Candlemas. Though it is still kept in some places, but for the most part it has been set forward to January 6, the day of Epiphany. The 17th Century English poet Robert Herrick wrote concerning this removal:
|Down with the Rosemary, and so|
Down with the Baies, and mistletoe;
Down with the Holly, Ivie, all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall.
To leave them up longer was to invite bad luck. The plants were burned and their ashes along with the ashes of the Yule log, were cast upon the fields, giving the earth new powers to promote growth in the spring.
According to Greek mythology, Proserpine had been abducted into the underworld by Pluto. The goddess Ceres, her mother, and the candle bearing celebrants searched for her in the winter darkness, bringing the reviving light was justifiably taken over by the Christian Church. The sacred light symbolized the Christ Child who was "a light for revelation to the Gentiles," and Mary was the Mother of God - the Theotokas- the lightbearer". The Mother and Son thus shared equally in the festival of Candlemas.
About The Groundhog
A groundhog is a marmot of North American variety with a reddish brown fur and a rough bushy tail. Also called woodchuck, though it is no way related with chucking of wood.
Being a rodent type groundhog is basically a burrowing mammal and lives in a hole in the ground (this is why the name!). It goes into a deep long slumber during the winter and comes out of the hole when the spring is on the verge. For a groundhog the moths before and after winter are very important. This is when the marmot remains extremely busy, searching for food, looking for a nice mate, helping the family grow, making good storage, furnishing new home (or hole) and getting thoroughly prepared for the next winter. The more active the groundhog remains during the summer the happier he spends the winter.
Now the legend: According to the traditional belief it comes out of the hole after checking out its own shadow. This is where it applies its wit, or that is what the legend says:
If a shadow of its own is seen under the sun, it slips back into the hole. For, it knows the winter is yet to be over by another six weeks.
If no shadow, it comes out finally. For, it predicts, the spring is close by
Though there is no statistical evidence favoring this belief, it is fact that the woodchuck is a very nervous creature. It gets terribly scared with the slightest provocation and sprints back in to its hole.
It is also a very shy animal and stays away from all possible human presence. There is, however, no evidence that a woodchuck has the power of predicting the change of season by studying the shadow.
Well, many of us just laugh away the capability of groundhog. They say, if a groundhog really goes back to its hole on seeing its own shadow that is due to its nervous and scary nature. After such long time of underground sleep detached from the outer world, it simply gets startled by its own shadow and runs back to its cozy, secured home to be pent up for a few more weeks.
Yes, it is only a possible explanation. But who knows if this met-marmot has got some magical power to foretell the arrival of spring!
Seasons and Shadows
As the Earth orbits the sun it follows two motions. One is the spinning motion around the Earth's own axis. This motion causes the days and nights. The other motion along the elliptical orbit takes a year to complete one full rotation around the sun. Seasons are caused by the Earth's axis being inclined at about 23-1/2o with the orbital plane. As the Earth orbits the sun its axis always points to the same direction.
In December the North Pole is leaning away from the sun and the Northern hemisphere receives less sunlight. The days are short and the sun is low in the sky so the sunlight is spread thinly over the Earth's surface. The sun is lowest in the sky on December 22, the winter solstice. The Northern Hemisphere receives so less sunlight that the Earth continues to get colder for another month. Thus January is colder than December. And the coldest time comes about the end of January. Things just get reverse as we move down to the southern hemisphere across the Equator.
Thus seasons are defined by this gradual shifting movement between the summer solstice and winter solstice. As we move on from winter to summer, or, the other way round, we come across four seasons, distinct especially in the temperate zones. Moving from the winter, in spring it gets warmer, in summer, hot. In autumn it gets cooler, in winter cold. Spring comes earlier down in southern areas than farther in the north. This is just the reverse in the southern hemisphere.
As light emitting from a source gets hit by an opaque object a shadow is created away from the source and on the other side of the object.
Shadows under the sun are created when the sunrays get hit by any opaque object - living or not. As the sun moves on from east to west shadows are created. Thus shadows are the longest when the sun is in the east or, west horizon. At around noon when the sun is perched just overhead, the shadows get reduced to a minimal length.
The movement of shadow in sync with the sun could be applied in making a sundial, the earliest form of clock known to give a near perfect reading.
This shadow movement also changes with the change of season. In winter as the North Pole leans away from the sun light falls a bit slantingly on the objects in the North.
Thus shadows are always a little longer throughout the winter days as against those during the summer. The variation in this shadow movement also helps us to predict the shifting of the seasons.
Now is it really possible to predict if spring is near or far?
Well, on February the sunlight is already bound for summer as the North Pole comes nearer the sun. The length of shadow is thus somewhat shorter, but not remarkably enough. So it is difficult to distinguish between a late January and a late February shadow unless you are a keen regular observer.