Feb 1, 2014

The Origins Of Groundhog Day


Groundhog Day in the U.S. and Canada is February 2
In the United States and Canada, February 2nd marks Groundhog Day.  The U.S. version of the holiday is popularized by the emergence of a particular groundhog - Punxsutawney Phil of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Punxsutawney Phil has his own Wikipedia page you can visit here.

According to legend, if the groundhog emerges and sees his shadow, that means six more weeks of winter. On the other hand, if he does not see his shadow (i.e., it is a cloudy day), that means spring is just around the corner.  Consequently, Groundhog Day is a curious celebration of the arrival (or non-arrival, as the case may be) of spring.

But why do we celebrate Groundhog Day on February 2nd when the official start of spring - the Vernal Equinox - does not occur for several more weeks?  In 2014, for example, the Vernal Equinox does not occur until March 20, 2014, almost seven weeks from now.  The reasons is because, in actuality, Groundhog Day has far more ancient roots than Punxsutawney Phil.

Imbolc (or St. Brighid's Day)

According to some, Groundhog Day relates back to an ancient Celtic/Gaelic observation known as Imbolc (pronounced "Imolck"), which most commonly occurs on February 1.  Approximately halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, February 1 would be the time when the growing season could begin if, according to Celtic beliefs, the light of spring was, in fact, overtaking the darkness of winter.

In order to determine if spring was "just around the corner," or if winter would endure, the Celts looked to the behavior of animals in the natural world.  In particular, the Celts believed that if serpents or badgers emerged from their winter dens on Imbolc, then spring would soon be here.

Also known as St. Brighid's Day, Imbolc is still recognized by certain pagan/Wiccan religions.  Such practices are commonly referred to as "weather divination."

Germanic Tradition

According to other sources, Groundhog Day has its roots in the German observation of Candlemas Day, which is February 2nd.  On Candlemas Day, farmers looked to whether the hedgehog (the der Igel), indigenous to parts of Germany, emerged from it den to determine if spring would soon arrive.

Upon their arrival to the U.S., Pennsylvania in particular, German immigrants discovered that there were no hedgehogs to watch.  Accordingly, they adapted the traditional observation by looking to the behavior of a similar animal known as the woodchuck, or groundhog.

In all likelihood, our modern Groundhog Day has ties to both Imbolc and the German traditions involving the hedgehog.  Either way, Groundhog Day represent an event that is steeped in ancient beliefs and customs about not only agricultural practices, but the cycle of death (winter) and rebirth (spring).

Update

For those who are interested, Punxsutawney Phil did, in fact, see his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter to come! You can read more about that here.

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