It’s Groundhog Day (or at least it was a few minutes ago), and unless you’ve been living in a burrow of your own for some time, you know gist: if the rodent sees its shadow, we have 6 more weeks of winter. If it doesn’t, then we can look forward to an early spring. Easy peasy.
Ah, but do you know the origins of this rodent-centric holiday?
According to J. Allen Varasdi’s Myth Information, this bizarre American ritual reaches back to the old country … and its resident badger population.
The popular legend surrounding the groundhog, also called a woodchuck, developed in Europe with 16th century German farmers. However, in Germany, the story originally was based on a badger. But, when German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania, there were no badgers, so the groundhog, being the closest animal in the area in appearance to the badger, was substituted in the story.
As for the story, the version Varasdi offers in his book is a little different from the one with which most of us are familiar.
According to folklore, if the groundhog sees its shadow, it will be frightened and return to its den, indicating another six weeks of winter. Farmers would then know to delay their spring planting.
I know it’s subtle, but we seem to have dropped that part about the groundhog being “frightened” of his shadow. The way we tell the story nowadays, the groundhog seems rather indifferent to the whole seeing its shadow thing. We also don’t seem to dwell on the fact that this annual event has to do with agriculture. Maybe that obvious (I mean, why else would we care how long winter is going to hang around?), but if you ask me, our collective denial of the agricultural part of the story is yet another example of the just how far we American’s have strayed from our agricultural roots. (No, “agricultural roots” is not a pun.)
Okay, so what’s the significance of February 2nd.” Don’t worry, Varasdi has an explanation for that too.
February 2 happens to be about the time groundhogs emerge from their burrows after winter in the vicinity of Punxsutawney.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Varasdi had the market cornered on explanations of Groundhog Day. However, I can’t say that because there are other books that disagree with his account.
Take for example the following excerpt from my Funk and Wagnell’s New World Encyclopedia (1972):
February 2 of each year, when according to rural American tradition, the groundhog (see Marmot) leaves the burrow where it has been hibernating to discover whether cold weather will continue. If the groundhog cannot see its shadow, it remains above ground, ending its hibernation. If its shadow is visible, there will be six more weeks of cold weather and the animal returns to its burrow. Groundhog day falls on Candlemas, an old church tradition in which a pleasant Candlemas means a cold spring. [This] probably inspired the legend.
Whoa. Marmot? Hibernation? Candlemas? This is why I love reference books. You never know where this shit is going to go! But I digress….
Anyway, note the absence of the animal (whatever kind of rodent it is … more on that below), being frightened by its shadow, as well as any suggestion that this annual event is affiliated with farming. As for Candlemas, I can’t seem to find anything in my collection that ties this religious ceremony to rodents. I did, however, find a text that links it to the February 2 and agriculture — The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature — which offers the following in its entry for Candlemas:
The ceremonies observed on this festival (which in the Roman Church is the celebration of the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary) are probably derived from the Februan or purification rites of paganism, which occurred on the same day. […] The Gentiles … devoted the month of February to the infernal deities because … it was in the beginning of this month that Pluto had ravished Proserpine. Ceres, her mother, had sought her through Sicily for a whole night by the light of torches…. In commemoration of this, they every year at the beginning of February, traveled the city during the night bearing lighted torches.
I know … that was waaaay out there and probably begs more questions than it answers, but I included that excerpt here because Ceres, as you may know, was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain and crops. Thus, while that last excerpt was rather convoluted, at least it offers a connection to early February and agriculture.
Now, in regard to the groundhog and what kind of animal it is, the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins has this to say:
American settlers named the marmot, or woodchuck, the groundhog, perhaps because this member of the squirrel family burrows through the ground. Or, possibly, groundhog is a translation of the Dutch aardvark made by Dutch settlers in America, even though the South African aardvark, or earth hog, is a larger burrowing animal than the groundhog. The groundhog isn’t a hog then, but its other American name, woodchuck, is no more accurate for the animal doesn’t chuck wood. “Woodchuck” has no connection with wood at all, [and is] simply derived from the Cree Indian word wuchuk or otchock for another animal, the fisher, or pekan, which early settlers corrupted to woodchuck and applied through mistaken identity to the groundhog.
So who’s right in all of this? Who knows. My guess is that there are probably kernels of truth in all of these explanations. At the end of the day, all you can really say is, “Happy Candlemas Marmot Planting Day!”