It’s Ground Hog Day: history and tradition

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and snow
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay
On Candlemas day if thorns hang a drop
You can be sure of a good pea crop
(Scottish verse)

Here in Connecticut, ground hogs grazing in the grass are a frequent sight during the mild weather months. During winter, however, the first one we see is Connecticut Chuckles VII, formerly known as Molly, who is always awakened early on February 2nd and ushered outdoors by keepers at the Lutz Children’s Museum in Manchester.

The groundhog , often referred to as the woodchuck, (of  “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck” fame) is the only mammal to have a holiday named in his honor, and for good reason. His holiday stems from the old belief that hibernating creatures were able to predict the arrival of springtime by their emergence. The German immigrants known as Pennsylvania Dutch brought the tradition to America in the 18th century. They had once regarded the badger as the winter-spring barometer…but the job was reassigned to the groundhog after importing their Candlemas traditions to the U.S. Traditionally, the groundhog is supposed to awaken on February 2, Groundhog Day, and come up out of his burrow. If he sees his shadow, he will return to the burrow for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, he remains outside and starts his year, because he knows that spring has arrived early. Chuckles, Connecticut’s Official Groundhog, came to reside at the museum years ago, after being hit by a car. He made a full recovery, although since being deaf and blind in one eye would make him a target for predators, he’s living out his golden years at the Lutz, making accurate predictions for Connecticut’s winter. When he’s not taking part in his annual important job, he enjoys relaxing, snacking on bananas, his favorite treat.

So what is Candlemas Day? The oldest of Christian festivals honoring the Virgin Mary, Candlemas commemorates her ritual purification after giving birth, as well as the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. According to Wikipedia, The name “Candlemas”comes from the annual blessing at this time of liturgical candles for use during the rest of the year. It was the traditional day to remove the cattle from the hay meadows, and from the field that was to be ploughed and sown that spring. References to it are common in later medieval and early Modern literature; Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is recorded as having its first performance on Candlemas Day, 1602. It remains one of the Scottish quarter days, at which debts are paid and law courts are in session. As with some other holidays, it is plausible that some features of Pagan observances were incorporated into Christian rites of Candlemas when the celebration of Candlemas spread to the north and west of Europe, where February 2 was sacred to the Goddess Brighid, or Brigid. Modern Pagans believe that Candlemas is a Christianization of the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, which was celebrated in pre-Christian Europe (and especially the Celtic Nations) at about the same time of year. This festival marked the mid-way point between the Winter Solstice and the spring equinox. The term “Imbolc” translates as either “in milk” or “in the belly,” and marked the birth and nursing of the spring lambs as a sign of the first stirrings of spring in the middle of winter. Imbolc is called “St. Brigid’s Day” or “Brigid” in Ireland, Scotland and Great Britain. Both Brigid the Goddess and Brigid the saint are associated with sacred flames, holy wells and springs, healing and smithcraft. Brigid is a virgin, yet also the patron of midwives.

There is also a scientific link to this old tradition, and it has to do with the weather phenomenon we know as El Nino. According to the folks at Old Farmer’s Almanac, “In large parts of the East,  an El Niño frequently produces a cool early winter, warm mid-winter and cool late winter. If a large rodent was wandering around in the relatively mild mid-winter, there might be enough sunshine to see his shadow. Then the El Niño would weaken and winter would literally come storming back.”

Regardless of its origins, Groundhog Day in the US is a secular celebration set midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Whether or not the little guy sees his shadow, Spring will definitely arrive in 6 weeks. Meteorological spring, that is; here in the northeast, the climate usually doesn’t cooperate!


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