As I write this article, we are just getting over a massive Nor’Easter in the New York Metropolitan Area and the snow in this area seems to just continue. While weather is on the forefront of the mind, I had to quickly search about what occurred in Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania on the morning of February 2, 2021. The famed groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil, did see his shadow, predicting 6 more weeks of winter. As an aside, his New York based cousin, Staten Island Chuck, did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring. Who do we believe? I’ll leave that to the meteorologists.
Every February 2 as many of us hear about the famous groundhog in Pennsylvania, the annual event begs a few questions: Where does this tradition come from? Why does this occur on every second day of February? Why do we care? In short, Groundhog Day is about hope.
We look to history and trace back a few thousand years ago to understand the origins of what we now know as Groundhog Day and how events leading to this day progressed over time.
In agrarian cultures, the position of the sun and other astrological aspects were an indicator of the planting season and the winter to come. These signs and positions of the celestial lights and how people interpreted them were particularly important because commerce, economies and survival were dependent on healthy and abundant crops. Whether it is superstition or some sort of belief, the thought was that mid-way between winter and spring (more on this later), if it was sunny and fair out, then the remainder of winter would be cold with bad weather. This would inevitably delay the planting season. If this period was gloomy, then people believed that the remainder of the season would be fair, which translated to earlier crops and reaping more benefits (Samford, 2017). One of the ancient societies who believed in this were the Celtics who identified midpoints between seasons called cross-quarter days and marked them for their agrarian needs. The midpoint between winter and spring was one of the most important to the Celts because it was about planting crops. This midpoint happens to fall on the 2nd day of February (Lewis, 2016).
During these times when agrarian societies dominated, holidays were also placed around cross-quarter days that were significant to agriculture. In ancient pagan cultures, such as the Celtic culture, the February 2 cross-quarter date is called Imbolc. Imbolc is a celebration of the Celtic sun goddess named Brighde, which means “the Bright one.” The names of Britain, Bridget and Brigid also derive from Brighde (Samford, 2017). Perhaps a coincidence, but the feast of Saint Brigid is celebrated on February 1. This famous Irish saint died on February 1 in the year 523.
We see familiar and similar holidays to Imbolc during various times of the year that are related to agriculture, the seasons and humanity. As mentioned in my February 2020 article “A Saint, A President and A Massacre,” the Romans celebrated Lupercalia for fertility. This coincided with the Christian and the now secular holiday of Valentine’s Day and was in anticipation of the coming spring. Another example is the Celtic holiday of Samhain, which is on November 1. This is the cross-quarter date between autumn and winter for the purpose of honoring the dead. The date is also All Saints Day in Christianity, with the next day (November 2) celebrating All Souls or Day of the Dead. This time of year coincides with the annual agricultural event of the harvest and the coming of the cold winter (Earthsky.com).
Subsequent to the Celts, cultures and societies were very aware of the cross-quarter days and some looked toward nature for signs of what the weather would do and crops would be affected. The Germanic people (possibly descendants of the Celts and who lived in what is now southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria) would look to particular animals to tell them when their crops should be planted (Bradbury, 2021). These Germanic people focused on badgers and hedgehogs because those two particular animals were considered smart and sensible when it came to weather. It was thought that if they “saw their shadow” and quickly went back to hibernation, then there would be more winter to come. If the weather during this cross-quarter period was gloomy, the animals would not see their shadow and warm weather would quickly follow (Samford, 2017).
The cross-quarter period between winter and spring was clearly about light and its impact as the days were getting longer. In the middle ages, Christianity spread to these areas and celebrated the date of February 2 (exactly 40 days after Christmas) as the commemoration of the Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Jewish Temple. The Bible refers to Jesus Christ as “a light to the revelation of Gentiles” (Luke 2) while being presented in the temple. Traditionally, candles are blessed on this day to light homes for the remainder of winter. Similar to the ancient Celts and Germanic people, these European Christians believed that if the sun came out on Candlemas, then there would be 40 more days of the snowy and frigid weather (History.com). The following is an English song that sums up the relationship between the winter season and Candlemas: If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again (Groundhog.org).
The Presentation by Benozzo Gozzoli
The tradition of predicting an early spring or more winter crossed the Atlantic Ocean into the United States in the mid to late 19th century. In the early 18th century, people from the Germanic lands settled parts of Pennsylvania and much like many immigrants from all different lands who came to what is now the United States, they brought their traditions and beliefs. A significant difference between the Germanic lands and Pennsylvania was that there were more hedgehogs and badgers in Europe and more groundhogs (who also hibernate in the winter) in Pennsylvania. The Germanic people thought of the groundhog as similar to the hedgehog in terms of sensibility when it came to weather.
In 1886, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh) was the first (known) place in the United States to popularize the groundhog coming out of his burrow to predict the remaining winter. In 1887, the spectacle was moved to nearby Gobbler’s Knob. While the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club says that the famed groundhog is named for a “King Philip,” it is somewhat of a mystery as to which King Philip and from what kingdom. Since prior to 1961, the famous groundhog was referred to as “Br’er Groundhog,” it is plausible that Punxsutawney Phil is actually named for Prince Philip, the current Duke of Edinburgh and spouse of Queen Elizabeth II (Reilly and Thompson, 2020).
In our present day, the “Seer of Seers” is greeted by tens of thousands of spectators, dignitaries, politicians, media and TV cameras. You may also recall the 1993 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. No doubt that this popularized the famous Pennsylvania groundhog even more. What was a true belief in weather prognostication that had impacts on commerce and sustenance has now taken the form of a celebrity complex and media event that disregards the true meaning and story behind Groundhog Day.
A few of the articles that I reviewed from the mainstream media brag about the inaccuracy of the groundhog. In the case of the New York Post, it takes the opportunity to make a political jab at the current mayor of New York City. Later in the article, it boasts how Staten Island Chuck is more accurate than Punxsatawney Phil. None of these articles, or others that I viewed talked about the advent or true meaning behind Groundhog Day. While some discussed how the Pennsylvania tradition came from Germany (not entirely accurate) or that it was related to the Christian feast of Candlemas, there is not even a brief mention of the relationship to the sun and the impact on crops for the people of these ancient societies. It seems to be more eye catching and entertaining to poke fun or point out the negativity of the day (i.e. the inaccuracy). I highly doubt that the Celts and early Christians would find today’s media coverage of this event very entertaining or informative. It was what they knew or believed at the time that impacted their crops and thus, their livelihood.
Place yourself over two thousand years ago in the Celtic lands of Europe at the time of Imbolc and not see the sun shine during that period. On Candlemas, picture an early Christian waiting for the sun to come out or not on this, their significant religious feast. Take yourself back to the Germanic lands of Europe and 19th century Pennsylvania to view the actions of a hedgehog, badger or groundhog on a cloudy Candlemas. Keep in mind that winters were very harsh times of years (still are) in these regions, but without electricity, gas and other amenities that make for comfortable winters today. We will never know the joy and optimism that the people in these societies and cultures must have felt on a mere cloudy day in early February. Whether or not the early spring actually came is not relevant. It was the optimistic feeling and hope that mattered, as it does in a different sense in early February 2021.
On Groundhog Day 2021, there was an article that I found by an Associated Press writer in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettethat understands the idea of the relationship between hope and Groundhog Day. The article states in part: “Shortly after this year’s prediction was revealed, one of the members of the inner circle shared a message he said Phil had told him earlier in the day: ‘After winter, you’re looking forward to one of the most beautiful and brightest springs you’ve ever seen.’ Another member of the ‘inner circle’ noted the uniqueness of the past year. ‘People have been referencing Groundhog Day. It has felt like at times we’re all living the same day over and over again,’ one of the members said. ‘Groundhog Day also shows us that the monotony ends. The cycle will be broken.’ ‘Today actually is Groundhog Day, there’s only one,’ he added. ‘There is quite literally a new day coming over the horizon.’”
I am not aware as to whether the writer knew about the origin of the period around February 2 and the hope of the ancient Celts, Germanic people and early Christians. Regardless, the message from the Associated Press writer is hope and optimism, which is sorely needed in our society.
You now know the full story of Groundhog Day that goes back over two thousand years and has always been a day of hope for better days ahead.