Today, February 2nd, is officially “Groundhog Day”. And Phil, the groundhog, the official critter of the official website, didn’t see its shadow. So, according to a German tradition/superstition, there will be an early Spring this year. And, here on the Peninsula, it would be an added plus because we had a late winter this year.
So, what is the story behind this day set aside to honor the critter known as a groundhog?
Groundhog Day or Groundhog’s Day is a traditional festival celebrated in the United States and Canada on February 2. It is a cross-quarter day, midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. In traditional weather lore, if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day and fails to see its shadow because the weather is cloudy, winter will soon end. If the groundhog sees its shadow because the weather is bright and clear, it will be frightened and run back into its hole, and the winter will continue for six more weeks. History: Around the fifth century, the European Celts believed that animals had certain supernatural powers on special days that were half-way between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.
Folklore from German and France indicated that when marmots and bears came out of their winter dens too early, they were frightened by their shadow and retreated back inside for four to six weeks. This may have been adopted by the Romans as Hedgehog Day. In Scotland the hedgehog has long been revered for its healing powers (as influenced in Robert Burns’ Ode to Hedgehog).
The earliest known American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Historical Society of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania. The reference was made on Feb. 4, 1861 in Morgantown, Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris’ diary: “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 is cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” In the U.S. the tradition derives from a Scottish 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
This tradition also stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and Hedgehog Day. Candlemas, also known as the Purification of the Virgin or the Presentation, coincides with the earlier pagan observance Imbolc. In western countries in the Northern Hemisphere the official first day of Spring is about six weeks after Groundhog Day, on March 20 or 21. About 1,000 year ago, before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar when the date of the equinox drifted in the Julian calendar, the spring equinox fell on March 16 instead. This was exactly six weeks after February 2. … Famous prognosticating groundhogs – Wiarton Willie found in Wiarton, Ontario; Punxsutawney Phil found in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania; Staten Island Chuck found in New York City, New York; Stormy found in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo; and Jimmy the Groundhog found in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
As far as the critter we know as the groundhog, Wikipedia writes:
The groundhog (Marmota monax), also known as the woodchuck or whistlepig, is a rodent of the family Sciuridae, belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Most marmots, such as yellow-bellied and hoary marmots, live in rocky and mountainous areas, but the woodchuck is a lowland creature. It is widely distributed in North America and common in the eastern and central United States. In the west it is found only in Alaska, British Columbia and northern Washington. … Groundhogs can live up to six years in the wild, and ten years in captivity. Their diet consists of grasses, clover, Plantago, garden vegetables, leaves, twigs, apples, berries, and dandelion. They are not as omnivorous as many other sciurids, but will sometimes eat small animals such as insects and snails. Groundhogs are excellent burrowers, using borrows for sleeping, rearing young, and hibernating. … Though groundhogs are the most solitary of the marmots, the same burrow may be occupied by several individuals. Groundhog burrows generally have between two and five entrances, providing groundhogs their primary means of escape from predators. Burrows are particularly large, with up to 45 feet of tunnels buried up to 5 feet underground, and pose a serious threat to agricultural and residential development by damaging farm machinery and even undermining building foundations. Groundhogs prefer to flee from would-be predators, and usually retreat to their burrows when threatened. Common predators for groundhogs include wolves, coyotes, and large hawks and owls. Young groundhogs are often at risk for predation by snakes, which easily enter the burrow. … It is common to see one or more nearly-motionless individuals standing erect on their hind feet watching for danger. When alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony. Usually groundhogs breed in their second year, but a small percentage may breed as yearlings. The breeding season extends from early March to middle or late April, following hibernation. The groundhog prefers open country and the edges of woodland, though it is rarely far from a burrow entrance.
Today would be a good day to view the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. A comedy produced in 1993.
Happy Groundhog Day – we will have an early Spring!
 Robert Burns is also the author of the lyrics in the traditional New Year’s Eve song, Auld Lang Syne.
 Author: Robert Burns.