Myth Monday: Groundhog Day and Its Long History (Not That Long)
Myth Mondays: Groundhog Day and It's Long History (Not That Long)
I'll look for my shadow when I'm good and ready.
This coming Saturday is Groundhog Day, the day when otherwise somewhat rational Americans huddle together in the freezing cold to see if some chubby, cranky rodent will crawl out of his den, squint his eyes and make a decision based on what his poor vision can detect: if he sees his shadow, he’ll run back to his den and there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, then spring will come early this year.
Who the hell thinks up of this stuff?
The origins of Groundhog Day go way back to ancient Celtic times, when the festival of Imbolc was celebrated on the first or second of February to honor Brighid (or Brigid), the goddess of fertility, poetry and metal-working. It was believed that Brighid would visit households at the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox to bless families, who would make a bed for her and leave her food and drinks (much like leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus). Sheep usually became pregnant this time of year, further adding to the belief that Brighid had visited and blessed the household. Imbolc was also a time for ritual cleansing of the self and home, and, since the days were growing longer, bonfires and candles were lit to celebrate the sun returning to life. This was also the perfect time for fortune telling—especially weather divination.
In addition to Imbolc, the ancient Gaelic people believed in the winter goddess Cailleach, a divine crone who hobbled around the land, spreading winter. On Imbolc, if Cailleach wanted the winter to stretch on a while longer, she’d make the day bright and sunny, so she could more easily find firewood to heat her home. If Imbolc was cloudy, that meant Cailleach overslept and didn’t extend her winter spell, so spring would be arriving early, and denned animals would wake up out of hibernation and emerge back into the world.
Spring's here, my job is done.
Fun was had by all, until Christianity showed up in Europe in the Dark Ages. By now, Christianity had been hijacked by men desperate for power and the subjugation of “uncivilized” people—especially women—so, like many other pagan holidays, they took over Imbolc as a way to gain more control over the pagan people. The Christians renamed the holiday Candlemas (Candle Mass), set its date as February 2nd, kept the lighting of candles, turned Goddess Brighid into Saint Bridget, and did away with almost everything else—though the idea of ritual cleansing took a new and decidedly misogynistic turn.
For hundreds of years, women were forbidden from attending church after they had had given birth—because the act of giving birth was considered “unclean,” something that a great many matriarchal pagan societies never believed in, thus creating another way of removing women’s power—and could only return after a set number of days had passed. If a woman had given birth to a boy, she had to wait forty days before returning to church, and if she gave birth to a girl—which was considered even dirtier—she had to wait eighty.
According to the Bible, the Virgin Mary waited forty days after the birth of Jesus (December 25 to February 2 is forty days) before returning to the temple to be ritually cleaned and permitted to attend worship again (this actually put some classical researchers in a snit; they claimed that since Mary didn’t copulate with a man and instead became pregnant through divine intervention, then there was no reason for her to need ritual cleansing, and therefore Candlemas shouldn’t be celebrated. The women-haters in charge didn’t see it that way, especially when it was working so well to bring pagan women to heel, so it stayed.)
No matter how hard the Christian authorities tried to do away with what they saw as diabolical practices, they could never completely eradicate certain beliefs. People all over Europe stubbornly clung to the idea that certain animals had some kind of magical ability to predict the weather on February 2nd, even if they didn’t remember why. In Germany, locals would keep an eye out for badgers (some areas watched for hedgehogs or bears) to emerge from their dens; if the badger stuck around, then spring was on its way. If the badger took a look and then shuffled back into its subterranean home, then it knew winter wasn’t over yet. How the idea of the badger (or any animal) seeing its shadow and going back into the den was convoluted with the ancient myth of Cailleach, though I can’t quite figure out how.
Nope, didn't see my shadow over here.
In the 17- and 1800s, large communities of Germans emigrated to Pennsylvania and settled there, becoming known locally as the Pennsylvania Dutch (“Dutch” being a mispronunciation of “Deutsch” which is German for, well, German) and bringing their Old World superstitions to the New World. It was the Pennsylvania Dutch that introduced the concept of meteorological animals to the United States, and they settled upon the groundhog as their new saint of spring either because there weren’t a whole lot of badgers there or people finally realized that badgers are a wee bit more temperamental than the grumbling groundhog. Watching out for groundhogs began as an ethnic pastime for the German-American population, but the quirkiness of hoping a groggy woodchuck could predict an early or late spring spread throughout the country. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a Groundhog Day celebration has been held every February 2nd since 1886. The celebration is so popular that it’s become a new version of Imbolc, with about 400,00 people flocking to see the world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.
You pull me out of my nice warm house and I'll beat you with this stick, I SWEAR ...
Interestingly, Punxsutawney Phil has developed his own mythology; the Groundhog Club, made up of members of the community who care for Phil, claim that this Phil is the same groundhog from 1886, having lived to be 132 years old by living off of a special “groundhog punch.” They also say Phil communicates his predictions to the Groundhog Club president through a unique language called Groundhogese, a language that in 2013 was misunderstood, causing the club president to mistakenly hear that Phil had not seen his shadow and predicted an early spring. This brought a (playful) indictment against Phil by an irate Ohio prosecutor. In 2015, the police department in Merrimack, New Hampshire, issued an arrest warrant for the rodent because Phil didn’t bother to warn everyone about the insane amount of snow we got that year.
Phil's probably wishing they used Google Translate
And in case you’re wondering, Phil’s only been right about 39% of the time, so I’d advise against placing any bets … although the Groundhog Club claims that Phil is completely accurate, it’s just that they’re not very good at speaking Groundhogese.