Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 3, 2008

So, What Did the Groundhog Say?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:03 pm

Yesterday was February 2. What significance that day had for you depended primarily upon your culture or lack of it. Be you a witch, pagan, wood sprite, hill folk, city folk, catholic folk, fossorial mammal or a combination of the above (although you can’t be a pagan catholic you could be a hill witch), your explanations will vary.  Billy, Phil, Wiarton, Shubenacadie, and Dave disagree even though they are closely related. One thing that is fairly certain is that Groundhogs had very little to do with it.

  For many of us yesterday was Groundhog Day. This meant that the name of Punxsutawney Phil was invoked and images of the sleepy forecaster were plastered across the news media. Phil saw his shadow, they say, and his top hat wearing translators have forwarded his declaration that six more weeks of winter lay ahead. 

  There are dissenters in the species rank, however. No fewer than 17 “official” ground hog forecasters have cropped up over the years and their predictions are rocking the very foundation of Ground Hog Day. Dunkirk Dave, of New York saw no shadow and boldly proclaimed the early onset of spring and Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Buckeye Chuck (Ohio), and Jimmy the Groundhog (Wisconsin) agree with him.  Only Sir Walter Wally (North Carolina) and West Indies Wilbur (do they even have ground hogs in the islands?) side with Phil for this year’s prediction.

  It’s no wonder that the others are gnashing their rodentine incisors.  Phil – actually a series of creatures since 1887, better called “the Phils” – has (have) been wrong over 60% of the time.  That is worse than guessing, in case you are doing the math.  Phil has been giving the brotherhood a bad name, so the others are trying their paw at this game but are proving to be just as unreliable.  While Gus Wickstrom’s Pig Spleen forecast method has proven only slightly more accurate, the truth is that Ground Hogs shouldn’t be expected to possess any prognostication abilities.

  I suppose we could blame the Germans.  German immigrants settling in western Pennsylvania brought an ancient old world tradition with them and planted it firmly on American soil. Although the original tale centered on a bear, the idea of a creature rising up out of the ground to see – or not see (that is the question) its shadow was central to the story.  “Seinen Schatten Sieht, so kriiecht er wieder auf sechs wochen ins Loch”, so goes the rhyme – if the bear sees his shadow on Feb. 2 he will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks. Over time, hedgehogs and European badgers have been interchanged with the bear.

  We can’t place blame on the early Catholic Church for trying to clean things up, but their efforts have confused the situation a bit.  In the ancient days, the period around Feb. 2 fell exactly half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  This was the time to celebrate the renewal of spring with pagan sacrifices, the invocation of wood spirits, the heavy intake of spirits, and the induction of new witches into the Land of Oz.  The church astutely chose to place a solemn ceremony on that very day and call it Candlemas.  That way everyone could still get together for a big party but put their celebratory efforts toward the forces of good.

  During Candlemas, all the church candles to be used for the year were blessed.  The candles represented Christ and his role as the Light of the World – this melded well with the concept of increasing daylight which brought healing to the land and the soul.  The candle/Christ tradition still holds today but the pagan underbelly is still there. Magical earth powers are sometimes credited to the candles. Blessed candles had the potential to ward away “tempest, thunder, devils, fearful sprites, damaging hail, and frost” according to one old English rhyme.

  It had long been tradition (possibly as early as the 4th century) to use a little phrase during Candlemas which went something like this: “If Candlemas is mild and pure, winter will be long for sure.”  Another rhyme went “If Candlemas day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in a year.”  Does this sound familiar?  Does it? Huh” Huh?

  It is likely that this Candlemas phrase was an attempt to replace the earlier pagan ditty which used the image of a sleeping animal rising from the earth and casting a shadow.  Basically it didn’t work. Instead a brown bear became a hedgehog then a badger and finally, in the absence of any of them, an American ground hog. Somehow the deep meaning of the renewal story got trivialized into a movie starring Bill Murray.

  So you see, ground hogs got sucked into this thing and have unjustly suffered in the limelight. They now have to endure the label of groundhog when their proper name is Woodchuck.  Because they spend their winter in a state of suspended animation, they don’t know diddly about winter and are forced to endure handling by strange men.

  Just how “out of it” winter woodchucks really are will be the subject of my next entry. Prepare ye the way for the hibernating ‘chuck, but he ain’t coming out on groundhog day.

1 Comment »

  1. fantastic put up, very informative. I ponder why the other experts of this sector do not understand this. You should continue your writing. I am confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

    Comment by Evan Leighton — March 24, 2012 @ 9:43 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress