Thursday, February 2, 2012

Groundhog-mancy

Divination by groundhog has been a tradition in Pennsylvania for more than 120 years. Every year on February 2nd, Groundhog Day, handlers in the little town of Punxsutawney consult the world's most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. The legend goes that if the groundhog sees his shadow on that particular day there will be six more weeks of winter. This year the weather forecasting website StormFax posted a roundup of more than a century of Groundhog Day predictions from the various rodents who over the years have served as Punxsutawney Phil (which, as you can imagine given 122 years of predictions, is more like an office than a single individual). What can we learn from the list? First of all, Phil usually sees his shadow, and second of all, he's right only 39% of the time.

When German settlers arrived in the 1700s, they brought a tradition known as Candlemas Day, which has an early origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc. It came at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Superstition held that if the weather was fair, the second half of Winter would be stormy and cold. For the early Christians in Europe, it was the custom on Candlemas Day for clergy to bless candles and distribute them to the people in the dark of Winter. A lighted candle was placed in each window of the home. The day's weather continued to be important. If the sun came out February 2, halfway between Winter and Spring, it meant six more weeks of wintry weather.

The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College:

February 4, 1841 - from 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 be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."

One of the problems with traditions is that they sometimes do not adapt to changing conditions. It would seem that the European weather on which the tradition was based is not similar enough to North American weather, which is both harsher and more unpredictable due to more of North America being situated far from any oceans along with its location on on the cold side of the Atlantic conveyor current that makes Europe substantially warmer than its latitude would otherwise suggest.

As far as this year goes, in Minnesota we've barely had a winter. There's hardly any snow left and the temperature has been above freezing for at least the last week. But the groundhog saw his shadow as usual. I'm guessing from what I've seen so far that this will be one more year he gets it wrong.

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3 comments:

J.C. said...

Thanks for shedding some light on this strange custom. It seems that from what you've written here that the Groundhog is an American addition to this observation between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. If that is the case, I wonder if they are better at this in Europe (making the observation themselves instead of looking to a Groundhog for advice).

Unknown said...

If he gets it wrong 39% of the time, then he is a pretty good divination tool, they are just interpreting him wrong. If they said "If the groundhog sees his shadow we'll have an early spring" they would be right 61% of the time, which is better than guessing. But then it is more of just a tradition now days.

Ananael Qaa said...

@Unknown: Very true! To tell you the truth, that's kind of how I've been interpreting it for awhile now, ever since I figured out that Phil was wrong more often than he was right.