With January to an end, thoughts turn to February and Groundhog Day, when around the country, members of the marmot family will announce whether Spring has sprung, or if Winter will be around for another six weeks.
Groundhog Day has its origins in Candlemas, the common name for the Roman Catholic feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mother. In turn, Candlemas draws on elements from the Celtic Pagan celebration of Imbolc (pronounced i-MOLG), such as the blessing and lighting of candles in honor of the Goddess Brigid, and the observance of hedgehogs emerging from their winter hibernation.
Imbolc itself basically means “in the milk,” and refers to when the teats of expectant sheep and cows would fill with mother’s milk – a major sign of Spring.
Candlemas traditionally falls forty days after Christmas to celebrate the Virgin Mary bringing the Christ-child into the church. Imbolc falls at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice, when the night is longer than the day, and the Vernal Equinox when the two are of roughly equal length. (The ancient Celts believed the evening to be the start of the new day, so Imbolc would begin on the evening of the First.)
The belief holds, that if the hedgehog/groundhog were to see its shadow, then it would return to the burrow to sleep out the remainder of the winter. As such, many of the adages imply that if the weather is fair, then the remaining winter will not be.
It is possible that the idea spawned from the Celtic belief in a powerful hag-witch, called a Cailleach (pronounced coy-luck), who ruled over the earth during the winter months. They believed that if Imbolc were to be clear and bright, then the hag-witch was out gathering wood to keep her warm through the remaining winter. If it was cold and stormy, then winter was almost over and she was not coming out until after All Hallows.
Candlemas came to North America with the German immigrants, who primarily settled in Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas in the late 1700’s. However, seeing as there were no hedgehogs in the Americas, they quickly adopted the Groundhog as a substitute.
Groundhog Day itself did not become an official US holiday until 1887, and today there are several celebrated prognosticating critters. The most well-known being Pennsylvania’s own Punxsutawney Phil. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people flock to Gobbler’s Knob every February to bear witness to Phil’s verdict. However, only about one third of his predictions has proven accurate.
This past weekend, the weather has been fair, much of the snow and ice melting away. However, there is a storm front moving in, so it will be debatable whether Phil will even want to leave his heated burrow. Despite that, my money is on the Crocus flowers.