Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Groundhog Day! (or Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc, or Marmot Day!)

Good riddance, January! The darkest month is in our rearview mirror, and the countdown to spring is on. Our days are steadily getting longer, and valentines and presidents' birthdays are on the horizon. One day I'm going to find something to love about cold, dark January, but it hasn't occurred to me yet. Any month that starts with a hangover and ends with W-2s can't be good.

February may actually be my favorite month of the year, maybe just by virtue of following January. I know we are still in the throes of winter weather, and some of our biggest snowfalls have historically nailed us in February, but it is always the month when spring shows herself in some way for the first time. Maybe I'm a little overeager, but something about February feels like the dimmer switch is being turned up just a little.

Clearly ancient civilizations sensed this as well, because many of them marked the first days of February with customs and celebrations. In Ireland, the ancient festival of Imbolc, also called St. Brigid's Day, was celebrated at the first of the month, which the ancient Gaels considered the start of spring. The days midway between the solstices and equinoxes are called "cross-quarter" days and were all considered significant to the ancient people. Ireland has its own Stonehenge-esque monuments that mark the position of the rising sun on these dates. Imbolc, in Old Irish, means "in the belly", referring to ewe's which are pregnant with spring lambs. The festival was, and is, associated with hearth and home, and is a celebration of lengthening days, diminishing shadows, and the coming of spring.

Astronomical Cross-Quarter Days

The ancient Christian observance of Candlemas also falls on February 2nd, or 40 days after the Nativity. As with many religiously significant events, the early Christian church attached dates to them that coincided with entrenched Pagan festivals, whether Roman or Gaelic, perhaps to help assimilate into local traditions. Similarly, Saint Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland, is often considered a Christianization of the earlier Gaelic goddess Brigid, further intertwining these dates and customs. As the Romans swept through Europe in the early part of the first century, bringing Christianity with them, local traditions were integrated, adapted, and disseminated. These were further spread after the withdrawal of the Romans when the Germanic tribes had a go at the British Isles.

Whatever the belief system or folklore, the underlying seasonal significance of the early days of February has long been recognized in one way or another. And as with other ancient customs tied to cross-quarter days (e.g. Halloween), the observance of this mid-winter point of the astronomical calendar has made its way down through the ages and across the Atlantic to us here in the good old US of A. Can you believe our own Groundhog Day is a derivative of these ancient traditions? Pennsylvania German immigrants brought this charming piece of folklore with them to America, and it has been with us in roughly its current form since the 18th or 19th century. The Germans were partial to the hedgehog. Since there are no hedgehogs in America (other than Sonic the Hedgehog), we went with the groundhog here in the States. Yes, Punxsutawney Phil can trace the origins of his celebrity as far back as the British Iron Age. Who knew?

Groundhog in Nature.

Punxsutawney Phil.

Most of us these days are familiar with Punxsutawney Phil, thanks in part to the movie, Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell (LOVE that movie - always makes me wish I had do-overs - see the clip below). Phil is one of the more famous of the many groundhogs that make an appearance across North America on Groundhog Day. As tradition would have it, Phil wobbles out of his burrow every February 2nd, to much fanfare and hype, and everyone waits to see if he casts a shadow. If it is cloudy outside and no shadow is visible, winter is over. If it is sunny and bright, Phil, or the groundhog at hand, sees his shadow, and spring will not arrive for six more weeks.

One of the first mentions of this folk tradition in America can be found in a diary entry dated February 5, 1841, of Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris:

"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."

This Scottish poem also draws an association between either bright weather or overcast skies at Candlemas signifying a longer or shorter winter, respectively:

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas Day be clouds and rain
Winter be gone and will not come again.
A farmer should, on Candlemas Day
Have half his corn and half his hay.
On Candlemas Day if the thorns hang adrop
You can be sure of a good pea crop.
This is the Day of Bride
The Queen will come from the Mound
This is the day of Bride
The serpent will come from the hole

Another poem that comes down to us from 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick encourages people to get their Christmas decorations down by Candlemas or risk being visited by goblins. Hint hint, Capers! Even in the 1600s, people tried to stretch the holidays too far! Nobody wants to see that tacky holly, ivy, and mistletoe hanging around after the first of February!

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

Again, the early February traditions have many sources and variations throughout different countries, cultures and religions. In some folklore, the animal is a bear, snake, or badger rather than a hedgehog or groundhog. I bet nobody is waiting outside the groggy, hungry bear's cave in a top hat and overcoat with an ump-ah band and festival bunting. For more information on the annual Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA, or to see Phil's prediction live, check out their website.

In Alaska, since they don't have many groundhogs (Marmota Monax - also known as woodchucks), the Yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) is the weather prognosticating creature of choice. As one of her final "maverick" acts before jumping ship in 2009, then Governor Palin signed into law a bill replacing Groundhog Day with Marmot Day. I guess they didn't trust Phil or any of the groundhogs of the lower 48 to predict their spring. I have to wonder just how close can spring really be in February in Alaska, anyway? Does the sun even rise there in February? Can the marmot see Russia from his house? Just kidding all you awesome Alaskans! (My blog stats actually show a couple of hits from Alaska - go figure).

If you're "Anchored Down in Anchorage", the day is almost a full eight hours long by February 2nd - plenty of time for a marmot to come out and take a look around. Although, while the high temperature in Anchorage today is 31 degrees and not so different from what we've seen this winter in Annapolis, six weeks from now, they will still just be cracking 30 degrees (decidedly NOT spring), while here in Maryland, we will be averaging 55 degrees, the temperature at which forsythia blooms (unquestionably spring). I guarantee you, the marmot will be scared silly by his shadow and retreat to his cozy burrow. Just as well for that furry creature to keep his head down, anyway.

Regardless of what Phil or any other critter sees today, spring will in fact come sooner or later, even in Alaska. I bet if you step outside, you will see signs of spring already in the form of swelling leaf and flower buds. Don't let the cold and ice fool you. And if you see your shadow and it scares you (in my case because it's about five pounds wider than before winter), crawl back into your warm burrow and bide your time until warmer temperatures entice you out into the light. It won't be long, Capers.

I came across this article online that I thought did a much more concise and less rambling job of explaining Groundhog day and its relationship to cross-quarter days:

Cross-quarter Groundhog

PS - Of course I don't know all that Groundhog Day information off the top of my head. I do, however, have it at the tips of my fingers thanks to Google. All the facts are courtesy of Wikipedia. Take it for what it's worth.

Anybody know if they have groundhogs in Hawaii? Aw, who really cares. It's summer there all the time.

And how could I blog about woodchucks on Groundhog Day without including my favorite woodchuck clip...

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