By Mike Weilbach
Early Wednesday morning in the small town of Punxsutawney, a burly old man in a top hat and tails unceremoniously plucked a grumpy groundhog from its winter den and presented it to a roaring crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. The man then whispered to the groundhog in a shared, secret language, what he calls “groundhog”…
And, for 136 years since 1886, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous rodent this side of a mouse named Mickey, will have predicted the weather. Happy groundhog day. And as I write this on Friday, it will be read long after his prediction, and while I still don’t know what he said, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Phil tells the guy he sees his shadow. (even if it’s cloudy) and we have six more weeks of winter. In this snowy, icy and very cold winter, otherwise it would completely lose its credibility (as does the groundhog, but you know…).
Although Phil’s batting average isn’t high (the National Climatic Data Center says his accuracy is only 39%, worse than flipping a coin), his forecast of six more weeks of winter is certain. In 136 attempts, that has been his decision more than 100 times.
However, as a naturalist, I love holidays named after an animal, and am amused that the national media has carved out a gap between mainstream stories like Russia about to invade Ukraine and President Biden about to to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.
And I love that it’s based on some natural history. Groundhogs, also called groundhogs, are in fact hibernators, sleeping all winter in underground burrows, their heart rate plummeting from 80 beats per minute in summer to five in winter. Five beats per minute! In February, the males wake from this sleep to explore their territory, searching for the dens of potential mates. After the scan, they go back to sleep for a month or so.
Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who settled in the New World brought their German tradition of searching for a hibernating animal (to them it was badgers, while the British used hedgehogs) on February 2 for weather forecasts. Coming here and seeing groundhogs roaming around in February probably started the tradition of Groundhog Day.
But the February 2 election is no accident. Those same German settlers also commemorated the Christian Candlemas, the day the clergy blessed and distributed candles to combat the winter darkness, and lighted candles were placed in the windows. Candlemas arrive at the exact midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and superstition held that if the weather was good that day, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. “If the Candelaria is beautiful and bright”, said the superstition, “winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not return.
Candlemas itself has an origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc, one of the four days between quarters, the intermediate marks of the seasons. Echoes of ancient crusade festivities have stayed with us through the centuries on May Day, Halloween, and Groundhog Day.
Today we are in the middle of winter, as farmers used to remember by repeating the adage: “Groundhog day, half your hay”. Go at your own pace; make sure you have enough for the second half of winter.
It seems there was a tug-of-war a long time ago over which calendar would mark the seasons, one where the cross days would start, the other where the solstices and equinoxes would. Midsummer Eve, another pre-Christian holiday captured so beautifully by Shakespeare, occurs on the summer solstice, now the beginning of summer. But long ago, the solstice was the midpoint of the season.
Parts of that ancient calendar have stayed with us, embedded in our cultural DNA. When that top-hatted gentleman dragged Phil out of his hole at Gobbler’s Knob, it reminded us of the old days when he ruled over a completely different calendar, and Wednesday was suddenly Imbolc, the first day of spring.
No matter what Phil calls this week, let’s be honest: He has a better chance of getting his prediction right than the Flyers of winning the Stanley Cup. Legs down, unfortunately.
ps The name Punxsutawney is so evocative. I knew it had to be a Native American name, but I only checked it out last week. Turns out it’s a Lenape phrase meaning “mosquito town.” Ssh, don’t tell the Chamber of Commerce, that’s not exactly the image they’d want to conjure up.
Mike Weilbacher runs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough and tweets @SCEEMike. You can reach him at [email protected].
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism