NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) - Have you ever wondered why we look to a furry rodent and his shadow at the beginning of February as an indicator of the weather?
Like many other traditions that may seem odd in our modern times, you have to go back in time for the reasons. In the case of Groundhog Day, you actually have to go back a few millennia.
That's right! The origins of Groundhog Day predate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Why the beginning of February?
We'll start off with the oldest part of the tradition: the timing. Throughout the history of man, sunlight has meant not only warmth, but life as well. The shortest day and longest days are the solstices, and the midpoints between are the equinoxes. These four days (two solstices and two equinoxes) were known as "quarter days" and split the year into fourths which then became known as the seasons we observe today. Lesser known is that the quarters were again divided in two, with the midway point being a "cross-quarter day." The beginning of February is the cross-quarter between the winter solstice and spring equinox.
In Gaelic, this cross-quarter day was known as a holiday called "Imbolc," which was affiliated with the pagan goddess Brigid. By early February, food sources in Northern Europe and what would become the British Isles were in short supply, and as ancient people would often do, they looked for omens.
The shadow's significance
The omen that became tied to Imbolc was a shadow. While there are many legends concerning Imbolc, one of the legends concerned the creator (at that time an older woman) gathering firewood for the colder temperatures during the shorter days. According to the legend, if the creator wanted winter to be longer, she would make the weather on Imbolc bright and sunny so she could gather more wood for her fire. The ancient people believed if the weather was cloudy or in general bad, the creator wouldn't gather her wood and winter would be almost over as the creator would warm the Earth instead of using her fire. The shadows of many animals were seen as omens depending on the region, including snakes and hedgehogs.
Why a groundhog?
When Christianity would later sweep through Europe and early pagan holidays would be replaced with Christian ones, Imbolc would become Candlemas. Candlemas is the celebration of the purification of Mary, the Blessed Mother, 40 days after the birth of Jesus Christ. In Hebrew tradition, a child would be presented to the temple 40 days after his birth (the tradition was limited to Jewish boys). While the "official" meaning of the day may have changed, Canldlemas continued the tradition of marking the lengthening of the days.
Fast forward over a thousand years to the 1700s. Germanic settlers were migrating to the Colonies that would become the United States and a particularly large settlement of immigrants settled in Pennsylvania. As immigrants often do, they brought over their own culture and practices, one of which was Candlemas. Before their journey, the Germans would look to see if a hedgehog would see its shadow for their winter prediction. However, hedgehogs are not native to North America, so the Germans looked to the groundhog instead. While the two animals are completely different, their similar appearance may have led to the Germans looking to the groundhog as a suitable substitute.
The tradition continues...
Since 1886, Punxsutawney Phil has been making "predictions" based on his shadow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The average lifespan of a groundhog is about six years, and it's unknown how many actual groundhogs have played the part of Phil. Groundhog Day began gaining popularity in the United States as whole after the local paper began promoting Phil as the official "Groundhog Day meteorologist." Nowadays, many cities and towns have their own groundhog in the United States and Canada, including General Beauregard Lee in Lilburn, GA, and Fred la Marmotte (Fred the Groundhog) in Val d'Espoir, Quebec.
Is Phil often correct?
The short answer: No. Phil's accuracy is around 40% on his predictions. From the available records that still exist, Phil has seen his shadow 102 times and not seen it because it was cloudy only 12 times. Regardless of what Phil says, spring will officially start on March 19 at 11:30pm in the Central time zone. But it's still good fun to see the pomp and circumstance surrounding this tradition!