Jan/Feb 2006


Groundhog Day

Or have we done this column before?

We return (not surprisingly) to the ancient Celts, whose Samhain traditions gave us the modern Halloween, who designated the day at the very center of our modern Winter (February 2), as the feast of Imbolc. It was a fertility celebration, though as Celtic Europe became more and more "Romanized" the festival began to be jointly celebrated with the Roman feast of Febru—a purification celebration (and, as you will have surmised, the origin of the month's very name).

As with Halloween and the Winter Solstice (which eventually evolved into the modern Christmas), these festivals were considered magic times, and hence very good times to fortell the future. However, whereas the holidays of fall concerned themselves more with fortelling one's future mate, the February holiday, due in no small part to its place at the very epicenter of the Winter season, was all about fortelling the weather.

As the Catholic Church did with so many other "pagan" feast days, February 2nd's "Imbolic" became the Christian feast day of Candlemas. As with all the other ancient Festival Days, the old rites and rituals survived, so that an early Candlemas songs went:

"If Candlemas be fair and bright
Come winter—have another flight
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain
Go winter and come not again"

The original animal used by the Europeans to divine the weather's future was, Europe being Europe, the hedgehog. However, early German settlers to the New World found the native woodchuck, or groundhog, a passable substitute.

It thus became the groundhog's lot to fortell the season's immediate meteorological future—if the weather were "fair and bright," the animal would see its shadow, and disappear for six weeks. If, however, there were "clouds and rain," the groundhog would emerge from its hole, signaling a quick end to the storms of Grim Winter.

And yes—it was indeed in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania (a region founded by a whole mess of Early German Settlers) that the first official Groundhog Day festival was held, back in the late 1800's, which led to the modern folklore associated with both the day and the animal, and took us finally from ancient Celtic fertility rites to the modern celebration known as...

Groundhog Day.

Or have we done this column before?