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By Jim Rhodes
As I write these words, it is February 2, which is celebrated in America as Groundhog Day.
Groundhogs, also called woodchucks, are a breed of furry rodents that hibernate underground during the winter. Males of the species usually emerge from their dens in early February to begin the mating season. Legend has it that if it’s a sunny day, the animal is frightened by its own shadow and retreats back underground. This is interpreted as a sign that wintry weather will last another six weeks. On a cloudy day, the beast lingers on the surface, which is said to betoken an early arrival of springtime weather.
Groundhog Day has its roots in pre-Christian Germanic folklore, in which badgers or hedgehogs were regarded as predictors of the coming Spring. The tradition was transferred to America in the 17th and 18th centuries by German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania. Over time, German badgers were replaced by American groundhogs.
The first public Groundhog Day celebration was a PR stunt by a newspaperman in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in 1837. It became an annual festival, and prior to Covid tens of thousands of tourists flocked to the event. Other U.S. cities have cashed in with their own versions, but Punxsutawney Phil is the best known of the prognosticating rodents.
Now for the story behind the story …
It goes back more than 17 centuries.
The second day of February has special astronomical significance. It falls exactly halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
The celebration of February 2 as a holiday marking the advent of Spring had ancient roots.
In Greece, the second day of February was the occasion for public purification rituals at least as early as the 4th century. The Romans also celebrated a holiday called Februalia, named for the god Februus, which also involved ritualistic purification ceremonies.
The ancient Celts in Ireland and Britain celebrated February 2 as a holiday called Imbolc. It was associated with a pagan goddess called Brigid, who was believed to be one of the most powerful deities in the Celtic pantheon. It was apparently celebrated with sundry fertility rites (about which you may wish to use your imagination). Brigid was said to have been born with a flame in her head. She was also credited with the introduction of keening, the traditional weeping ritual still practiced by women at funerals in Ireland and Scotland.
As Christianity spread across Europe in the early Middle Ages, missionaries encouraged the “Christianizing” of local pagan practices and holidays. Thus, Imbolc and Februalia were absorbed into Candlemas, the Christian feast day celebrating the occasion of Jesus’ presentation at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest feasts of Christianity, dating back at least to the 4th century. In some Christian traditions, Candlemas is often treated as the last day of the Christmas-Epiphany cycle, 40 days after Christ’s birth date.
February 2 also became the feast day for the fifth-century Irish nun St. Brigid, who was an early convert to Christianity and a contemporary of St. Patrick. She founded a monastery in Kildare, which is claimed to be the location of an earlier shrine to the Celtic goddess. We can probably assume the identical names of the goddess and saint is probably not accidental.
St. Brigid is also credited with numerous miracles, one of which was turning bathwater into beer – a skill set much admired by the Irish to this day.
Fast forward to the 21st century …
According to news reports, Punxsutawney Phil emerged this morning to blink his eyes in the bright morning sun, predicting six more weeks of snow and icy weather.
A final note … if you’re wondering about the accuracy of the fuzzy beast’s long-range weather forecasts, the answer, according to the National Climatic Data Center, is that Phil’s success rate is historically less than 30 percent.
Presumably, no one has briefed him about Global Warming.