Saturday, February 4, 2012

Groundhog Day-An American Holiday

This is my very first blog post, so please bear with me as I learn the ropes.  My plan is for this blog to take some common events in history and make you think a little more about them.  Some posts might reveal a misconception or an outright lie.  Others might just make some connections you never considered before.  This isn't your history textbook.  There won't be any notes to take, outlines to complete, or tests to pass.  If nothing else, it might give you an interesting fact to share with you kids.  So, here goes!

Groundhog Day-Why do we turn to a lowly rodent every year to predict the weather?  To be honest, there isn't one simple answer to that question.  Like a lot of American traditions, it's actually a mish mash of several different things. 

Imbolc was a day in the ancient Celtic calendar that marked the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal (spring) Equinox.  The ancient Celts held a festival around February 1 or 2, and it was then that they celebrated the beginning of spring.  Imbolc means "in the belly" and many historians say it was associated with pregnant ewes at that time of year.  When the Roman Catholic Church spread into the British Isles, Imbolc became St. Brigid's Day, although some say the day was actually named for the Gaelic goddess Brigid.  Candlemas immediately followed St. Brigid's Day.  Candlemas is the celebration of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  According to Luke, Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth, when she was deemed pure again after childbirth.  Early Christians held a feast in recognition of Jesus's presentation.  In Europe, Candlemas took the form of the clergy handing out blessed candles to each household during that dark and cold time of year. 

When Europe switched from the Gregorian calendar to the Julien calendar, there was a great deal of confusion.  Many holidays and traditions had to be moved or rearranged.  Some historians suggest that the tradition of using a small animal to predict the weather for the remainder of winter arose from the confusion that resulted from the transition from pagan to Christian holidays, and the switch from one calendar to the other.  That tradition then spread across western Europe, eventually travelling across the Atlantic to America. 

Most sources indicate that the tradition traveled with the Germans into Pennsylvania, and there it was influenced by other cultures.  One of those cultures is likely the Delaware, who settled in the Punxsutawney area in 1723.  The Delaware had a tradition of honoring the groundhog as an ancestor.  Their creation story describes animals that lived in "Mother Earth" that later lived and hunted as men.   When the Germans arrived, they brought Candlemas and remnants of Imbolc with them.  The idea was that a sunny day on Feb. 2 would bring more winter, but that a dark day would bring early spring.  There are a variety of sayings, but
the German version says:
                                        For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day
                                        So far will the snow swirl until May.
                                        For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day
                                        So far will the sun shine before May.

As the cultures mingled and combined, Americans ended up turning Candlemas into an entirely different kind of day.  The sun would cast a shadow from an animal, and in Pennsylvania, the animal of importance was the groundhog.  The first recorded Groundhog reference comes from James Morris's diary, written on February 4, 1841.  He mentions the groundhog, and what happens if he sees his shadow. 

The first official Groundhog Day was Feb. 2, 1886.  Punxsutawney made his first appearance, and predicted an early spring.  Then next year was the first trip up Gobbler's Knob.  The tradition spread across the United States, and now most states have a special groundhog observe on Feb. 2.  The predictions are accurate about 39% of the time.  This year, most of the groundhogs have predicted early spring, including Buckeye Chuck in Ohio and French Creek Freddy in West Virginia.  Punxsutawney Phil disagreed and said it would be six more weeks of winter.  Now you know more than you ever cared to about Groundhog Day.  Next year, as the day approaches, I will be thinking about how amazing Americans are at this melting pot stuff.