The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 2, 2007


Shadow or not, we're halfway to spring

This is not the real Punxsutawney Phil, but probably a close relative living, and now hibernating, in Carlisle. (Photo by Joan Rolfe)

Punxsutawney Phil, the prognosticating groundhog (Marmota monax), is America's biggest celebrity, every February 2. He emerges from his climate-controlled burrow near Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to tell the nation and upwards of 35,000 yearly attendees to the ceremony, how long winter will last. Phil, legendarily named for the Native American King Philip, is not the only groundhog to make predictions on February 2. In cities around the North American continent, Groundhog Day celebrants regularly interrupt the hibernation patterns of unfortunate woodchucks to conduct similar forecasting events. In Canada, an albino woodchuck named Wiarton Willie does the job. New York City's official groundhog is called Pothole Pete.

To the uninitiated, a large (up to 14 pounds) rodent auguring the weather for the next six weeks must seem strange, if not thoroughly silly, but the folklore of Groundhog Day, and the story of how the largest annual prediction ceremony came to be in western Pennsylvania, have their roots in natural and cultural truth. February 2 is one of four so-called "cross-quarter" days in the year. These are the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes, in this case, the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so in truth, no matter what the groundhog says, we are halfway through winter. An old farmer's saying used to advise, "Groundhog Day, half your hay," meaning that on February 2 you should still have half your winter hay store left to feed your animals through the rest of the cold weather.

An ancient ritual combines with agricultural folklore

However, the celebration of the cross-quarter day goes back much farther than the groundhog ritual to an ancient Scots-Celtic celebration called Imbolc or Imbolog. As on the other cross-quarter days, Samhain (Halloween), Beltane (May Day) and Lughnasadh (August 1 harvest festival), it was thought that the barrier between this world and the world of the spirits was thinner on this day, so that divination or prediction was easier. It was a ritualistic celebration to honor Brigit, the Earth Mother, for allowing people to survive halfway through the winter, and involved the lighting of fires and torches for light and purification. It is still known in Scotland and Ireland as Brigit's Day, La Fheill na Brigit in Gaelic, the first day of spring. The ancient Celts started the superstition that if the weather was fair on Imbolog, the rest of the winter would be cold and stormy, but even the superstition had within it a grain of truth. If the weather is fair in the winter, it is often colder than it is when there is a cloud cover cushioning the wind, so it might seem as if the cold will last. In this agricultural society, farmers learned that some hibernating animals, among them the hedgehog, would peep out of their dens as they sensed the weather turning, so they learned to watch for these animals to see if they would return to their burrows or stay on the earth's surface and seek mates, as they do in the spring. Who knows but that a drowsy hedgehog might have seen his shadow on a cold, fair February 2 and, perceiving it as an enemy, scurried quickly back down below the earth's surface? However it happened, the custom of seeking the hedgehogs and attaching the idea of weather prediction to their behavior caught on and held strong.

Early Christians in Britain followed closely along these pagan lines and dedicated the day to Saint Brigit, the patron saint of cattle and dairy farming. Supposedly Saint Brigit was born at sunrise on a threshold, neither inside nor outside of a house, and therefore represented the transition from winter to spring.

Celebrations mingle across cultures and oceans

The name February comes from a Latin word that means "to purify." The Romans would cleanse and purify themselves to make ready for the fresh start that would come with spring. At this time, they would also undergo religious ceremonies designed to guarantee fertility. In Hebrew tradition, a new mother would complete the birthing process 40 days after her child was born by going to the temple to make an offering and be purified.

When Christian custom established Christmas on December 25 as the date of Jesus's birth, his mother Mary's purification day would have been February 2. The early church appropriated some of the pagan rituals of Imbolog, lighting candles to signify the purification process, and renamed the day Candlemas. Early Christians also retained the notion that on such a day as this, one could become closer to God and strip away some of the veil between the natural and spiritual world. Therefore, with deep reflection and close observation, it might be possible to predict the weather.

In Scotland, the saying arose that: "If Candlemas be bright and clear, there'll be twa (two) winters in the year." Other rhyming platitudes arose as well: "If Candlemas be sunny and warm, ye may mend your mittens and look for storm," or,

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

The Romans incorporated the ancient Celtic rituals and superstitions into their own culture and religion and spread them to Northern Europe, to the Teutonic people who would become the Germans. There, they became part of the folk culture, and the tradition of watching out for the rise of burrowing animals took hold. In the 17th century, German farmers who emigrated to the New World brought these beliefs and customs with them, but hedgehogs and other Northern European burrowers were hard to find in America. The adjustment to the native marmot (woodchuck or groundhog) was a natural progression, as it resembled many of the European animals.

The Punxsutawney connection and what it means to us

Many Germans settled in Pennsylvania, so it is commonly held that this is how the groundhog-seeking superstition arrived there. In the 1880s, some friends in Punxsutawney went into the woods on Candlemas Day to look for groundhogs and the outing became a tradition. A local newspaper dubbed the groundhog-seekers the "Punxsutawney Groundhog Club," and in 1887, the search became a civic event with a groundhog duly appropriated from the woods and named Punxsutawney Phil.

Club members today insist that with the aid of a magic serum fed to Phil every summer, he gains seven years of life, so that there has been only one Phil from 1887 to the present day. They also say his predictions are, and always have been, 100% accurate. To learn more about the club and the annual celebration of Groundhog Day, visit

In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, created a resurgence in the popularity of the Groundhog Day celebration. An article and review of the movie is even entered in the Congressional Record. In the movie, Murray's character, a meteorologist appropriately named Phil, goes to Punxsutawney to cover the annual celebration, and finds himself trapped in repetitions of February 2 until his crusty character softens and he falls in love. His re-emergence into the world, making it to February 3, mirrors that of the little groundhog who has been in hibernation and emerges to find his mate and the promise of spring.

From ancient times, when the natural rhythms of nature inspired folklore and religious belief, to the present day when we lightheartedly wait for Punxsutawney Phil's prediction, that hope and promise has been the foundation of this holiday.

We have made it halfway through winter, and shadow or not, we are halfway to spring.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito