The first days of February are celebrated round the world for more than giving weather-predicting rodents a spotlight. The custom is steeped in history from a number of cultures, but at the root of most of them is the same basic principle. The mid-way point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox (winter and spring) falls on these first days of February. It gave those peoples the hope that the worst of the winter was behind them and spring was on the way. By the first week in February the days are noticeably longer and signs of the new season are beginning to emerge.
The Celtic peoples celebrated Imbolc and the Druids celebrated cross-quarter days, which the Christians changed to Candlemas to help transition the pagans to their belief system. The Germanic folks were responsible for introducing an animal into the custom, although they used a badger or bear that woke up to predict the coming of spring. All of these animals predict six more weeks of winter if they see their shadows. Supposedly, this scares them so much they return to their burrows and hide for the remainder of the season. If there is no shadow, they feel confident enough to remain outside and look for spring. Weather services have charted their predictions over the years and it seems they have about a 30 to 35% accuracy rate in their forecasts, although their fans claim a much higher percentage. It's all in good fun.
When German immigrants came to the New World, the custom followed them and across the US and Canada the groundhog was adopted as the animal of choice, given that they were much more numerous than badgers or bears on this continent. Groundhogs (or woodchucks, as they are also called) are active during this period since it is mating season. It seems that they wake up and hunt a mate, take care of business and go back to sleep for a bit. The pups are born at the end of March and first of April.
The actual celebration started in Punxutawney, Pennsylvania on Gobbler's Knob in 1887 and they claim to have the 'official' groundhog, Punxutawney Phil, although there are many usurpers to Phil's crown. General Beauregard Lee holds court on the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, Georgia, while Balzac Billy reigns supreme in Balzac, Alberta, Canada. Fred la Marmotte helps the people of Quebec celebrate Jour de la Marmotte and Chattanooga Chuck predicts the weather in Chattanooga, Tennessee. These are just a few of the colorful rodents we look to each February 2nd, but what about the parts of the country where groundhogs aren't native? The people of Nevada have solved their problem with a weather-predicting turtle named Mojave Max and Texans look to the armadillo for weather advice. However, Phil seems to be the groundhog that gets the most news coverage and if you missed the early morning celebration today, you can simply text the word 'groundhog' to 247365 to receive a text from him giving you his forecast.
So, even though the celebration seems silly and useless, all of us are longing for spring and any little bit of fun while we are waiting for it helps pass the time. Chances are, those of us in cold climate areas will see quite a bit more winter before spring arrives, so enjoy today, regardless whether there is a favored rodent in your neighborhood.
Groundhog Day Celebration image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Anthony Quintano