The custom of celebrating Groundhog Day has roots deep in ancient Europe where it was a weather folklore tradition. However, in those days, it was not a groundhog that was the forecaster of the day. According to the old customs, a badger or a sacred bear prognosticated the weather. In many ways, the celebration shares much with Imbolc, a Pagan festival which took place at the seasonal turning point. This festival which also bore weather prognostication, was a Celtic custom, celebrated on February 1. There are even some indications that Groundhog Day has connections to St. Swithun’s Day in July.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the custom was being celebrated in southeastern and central Pennsylvania, a region settled by many people of German descent. An early reference to Groundhog Day was noted in a February 4, 1841 diary entry by a Pennsylvania storekeeper named James Morris. He lived in Berks County when he wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”
It appears the settlers did as many who came to America, they adapted to their environment. Instead of a badger or a sacred bear, they used a rodent, the Marmota monas of the Sciuridae family, which is nothing more than a large ground squirrel.
The tradition was not limited to Pennsylvania in those early days. There were people as far north as Canada holding the same prognostication ritual.
Others believe the tradition may have been grown from Scottish customs. The basis for this thought is an English poem, ”
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 rain
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
There are a number of other theories on the origin of Groundhog Day. In the Northern Hemisphere’s western countries, the first official day of spring is 46-48 days after the beginning of February. That is about seven weeks. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the date of the equinox drifted in the Julian calendar, and the spring equinox fell on the 16th of March, exactly six weeks after February 2. It is very possible that the Groundhog Day custom could have been a folk embodiment of the confusion created by the collision of the two calendrical systems.
There were ancient traditions that marked the change of the season at cross-quarter days such as Imbolc when daylight first breaks. Some traditions said spring did not begin until the length of daylight overtook the night at the Vernal Equinox.
It seems the furry weathermen were used as an arbiter. The groundhog, was incorporated as a yearly custom to settle the two traditions. Sometimes Spring begins at Imbolc, and sometimes Winter lasts 6 more weeks until the equinox.
There you have it, Groundhog Day was simply one of those things Americans have done for years to reach agreements – compromise.
Photo 1: Fossil HD Cover. Groundhog. Creative Commons