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5 February 1999

Groundhog Day

Tuesday was Groundhog Day. Traditions don't have to make good sense, but they often do. What's so special about February 2? We don't have groundhogs in California, but if any gopher stuck his head out of the ground this week, I'm sure he saw his shadow because it's been sunny and clear. By tradition, this means we'll have six more weeks of winter. But isn't this backwards? Is there any reasonable way to explain why sunshine means more winter, while clouds mean that spring is here? Shouldn't it be just the opposite?


Groundhog Day on February 2 is exactly midway between solstice and equinox, as are May Day and Halloween. It's also Candlemas Day when candles are blessed and the Christmas season is finally over. It's part of this ancient European tradition that clear skies foretell six more weeks of winter until the equinox. This makes some weather sense. Clear nights are usually the coldest, because heat can radiate back into the sky. Cloud cover holds the heat in like a blanket, which might melt snow and give seedlings an early start.

Notes:

The official groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil, who didn't see his shadow this year. So spring is just around the corner. Phil's only been right about 40% of the time. I'm not impressed.

The tradition seems to have worked for us in Santa Barbara this year. Groundhog Day was clear, so the gopher saw his shadow. We had a week of much needed winter rain since then, and I hope winter storms will continue. (We're having a La Niña drought after last year's El Niño deluge.) Of course, most people would say we don't have a proper winter here in central California at all. At least we have winter and spring together. But that's another stumper

Candlemas ceremonies are dominated by light. Church candles are blessed for the coming liturgical year. Lit candles are placed in each window overnight to show hope in the winter darkness. It is the day to finally take down the last of the Christmas greenery to burn in a community bonfire. These are appropriate ceremonies for a mid-winter day with spring still around the corner. It is also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, marking Mary's traditional Jewish ritual purification at the Temple forty days after giving birth. And it is the day of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, when the infant Jesus was first taken to Temple and only Simeon and Anna recognized Him. (Luke 2:25) It's a powerful day with largely forgotten roots.

So why groundhogs? And why does a sunny day actually foretell more winter not less? What could be better than a sunny day for a festival of light? There's still a stumper here!

The connection with burrowing animals is ancient. An old English rhyme (with many variations) goes:

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight;
But if Candlemas Day be clouds and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.
And from the German tradition,
Wenn der Bzu Lichtmess seinen Schatten sieht,
so kriecht er wieder auf sechs Wochen ins Loch.

When the bear sees his shadow at Candlemas,
he will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks.

It's not enough to just look at the sky like we did at school. There's always a hibernating mammal in the tradition who comes out of the earth to see his shadow. In England and Europe, it's a hedgehog, or a badger, or even a bear. When emigrants brought their traditions to America, the native woodchuck or groundhog (actually a kind of marmot) joined the ranks. Gophers don't hibernate, but they're the best we have where I live. In ancient Rome, which shares our mild climate, wolves came down from the hills on Lupercalia in February. Same thing.

Groundhog Day seems like such a silly PR/media event, but it has deep roots in Christianity. And like Easter eggs and Christmas trees, it overlays and preserves even older pagan and shamanistic traditions. This must have been a deliberate policy of the early Church to co-opt non-Christian traditions by absorbing them and giving them new meaning. (I remember Nixon giving the peace sign!) It's exactly these "silly customs" that carry the deepest roots of our traditions.

Groundhog Day is deeply rooted in the astronomical cycle of the year. We reckon our seasons from the solstices and equinoxes. These are the four quarter days of the year. For example, summer begins with the the summer solstice on June 21. It's the longest day of the year, when the sun is the highest in the sky. Summer ends as autumn begins, with the autumnal equinox, when day and night are back to the same length. This makes good weather sense. (See my Winter Question stumper.)

But the summer solstice is also known as Midsummer Day, e.g. in Shakespeare. This reminds us of an older way of reckoning the seasons as beginning with the calendar points between the solstices and equinoxes. These are known as the cross-quarter days. This makes good astronomical sense. The solstices are maxima/minima that should be in the middle of something.

By this alternative reckoning, summer begins with May Day on May 1, also known as Beltain, and runs until First Harvest Day on August 1, also known as Lammas or Lughnasad. Another in-between day is Halloween or Samhain. (I think these are Celtic names from England.) And Groundhog Day is the day between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Groundhog Day is really the cross-quarter day of Imbolc or Oimelc. It is one of the four major pagan (now Wiccan) Greater Sabbats that divide the year at the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes. The entire pagan Wheel of the Year looks like this:


This is an image map: click on any Sabbat
for more info from Mike Nichols' The Witches' Sabbats.

| Yule | Imbolc | Eostara | Beltain | Litha | Lammas | Mabon | Samhain |

Groundhog Day is more than a secular media event. But why a groundhog? And why the shadow?

My best guess (with suggestions from Susan and Kelsea) is that this draws on ancient shamanistic tradition. The groundhog is really the shaman who can travel to the spirit-world for purification and light and information. It's part of his job to bring back the sun after the solstice. When he returns on Groundhog's Day, the real beginning of spring, he doesn't notice the sunshine so much as his shadow, which means that he is not yet pure. So he must return to the darkness until his ritual work is done. So winter continues.

These matters were in the back of my mind last week during a busy week at school with mid-term comments due. We had Valentine's Day at school on Friday (since we'll be on vacation on Feb. 14), so I did some Web research on the meaning of the day. Most explanations just didn't seem convincing. I was only slightly surprised when I found the following on Mike Nichols' The Witches' Sabbats page:

Another holiday that gets mixed up in this is Valentine's Day. Ozark folklorist Vance Randolf makes this quite clear by noting that the old-timers used to celebrate Groundhog's Day on February 14th. This same displacement is evident in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as well. Their habit of celebrating the birth of Jesus on January 6th, with a similar post-dated shift in the six-week period that follows it, puts the Feast of the Purification of Mary on February 14th. It is amazing to think that the same confusion and lateral displacement of one of the old folk holidays can be seen from the Russian steppes to the Ozark hills, but such seems to be the case!
"If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." With Groundhog Day on my mind, that's what I find. I'm sure Valentine's Day took its place in our culture because it's more marketable. Now it's marketing that co-opts the old sacred days. My head is spinning. Time to stop!

I had a great time doing Web research on this stumper, and you can do the same. Here are a few starting links for more information:

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Copyright © 1999 by Marc Kummel / mkummel@rain.org