With the turn of recent events in the UK (announcing a third lockdown) Groundhog Day was one thing that sprang to my mind (in a vague attempt to steer my thoughts towards the lighter side of things) and I decided it’d be a good subject for a blog. Better still, Groundhog Day is almost upon us and this prompted me into investigating more about this furry predictor.
Groundhog Day falls on the day of Candlemas (the 2nd February) – this being a Christian festival that celebrates the day when Jesus was taken for presentation at the temple (as were firstborn sons). The candle element refers to the practice of folks bringing their candles to church for a blessing. They believed that if they brought the blessed candles back into their homes, the light they provided would provide a blessing on their dwelling (Jesus being the light of the world).
Candlemas was also believed to be a day for prediction of the remainder of the winter; a bright, sunny Candlemas day meant more winter weather was to come; whereas a dull, cloudy Candlemas day meant that the winter was drawing to a close.
In Germany, this tradition was taken further and on Candlemas they declared that if a bear (yes not a Groundhog yet!) emerged from hibernation, saw its shadow and retreated back into slumber again, then the winter was set to continue further. However, if the bear emerged to cloudy skies and no shadow was seen, then the rest of the winter would be short lived.
As bears grew scarce in their homeland, the German people turned to badgers for this prediction and the badger was adopted as the meteorological foreteller of late winter weather.
When German emigrants settled in Pennsylvania, USA, they brought their tradition with them. However, the animal was set to change again and instead of the badger, they adopted what they called the ‘Ground Badger’, which was of course is what we now call a Groundhog and Groundhog Day was born.
The first time the event was published in the local newspaper was 1886 and from 1887 onwards the yearly tradition was held at the rather interestingly named Gobblers Knob (no I honestly didn’t make that up!!) in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The officiating Groundhog is called Phil (short for Philip) and is thought to be named after King Philip (although it’s also been suggested it might have been after Prince Philip). Previous to this name, he was just called Groundhog.
It is purported that Phil is the one and only original Groundhog and that he owes his incredibly long life to a sip of magical punch that he’s fed at the Groundhog picnic each year – this extends his life by another 7 years apparently – lucky Phil!
It has to be said that’s Phil’s predictions are not known for their absolute accuracy; however, it is maintained that it is merely a case of our mistaken interpretation of his actions rather than any error on his part.
So, what of these famous rodents? Well, Groundhogs belong to a large group of ground squirrels (not badgers!) called marmots. Groundhogs are also known as Woodchucks and are native to North America, Canada and Alaska.
As an aside, this little tongue twister might give you a smile:
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
As much wood as a woodchuck could chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood
Groundhogs are herbivores and enjoy munching up to a pound of vegetation each day, which includes wild grasses, berries and any crops they can lay their paws on. Speaking of which, they have large claws to help with their excavations; they also sport sturdy incisor teeth that grow up to 1.5mm per week – fortunately usage equals growth, keeping the teeth length in check.
Groundhogs are always vigilant when above ground and whistle to warn their colony of any impending dangers (earning them the nickname of whistle-pigs). Unlike many marmots, Groundhogs (as their name tells us) like to live in lowland areas and are dedicated diggers; tunnelling out lengthy burrows for themselves and their young, which can bring them into conflict with farmers and gardeners (think how it is to find a giant mole in your back yard!). Of course, Groundhogs hibernate in these burrows over winter, emerging in the spring just in time to predict the forecast for the late winter and onset of spring!
Further fame came to Groundhog Day following the Bill Murray film of the same name released in 1993, where Bill Murray’s character, a rather grumpy, Phil, the weatherman (of course what else!) is sent to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day and is prepared to hate every minute of it. He’s shocked to find himself ‘stuck’ in the same Groundhog Day and he is forced to relive it over and over again, being unable to escape. Discovering there are no consequences to his actions, he embarks on a series and growingly bizarre exploits, before finally coming to improve his behaviour and finding love along the way – this ultimately frees him from the stuck time loop of Groundhog Day.
It’s widely accepted that the film attracted a lot of attention for the festival and consequentially, its popularity grew around the world, resulting in more and more visitors attending the event in Pennsylvania every year. Indeed, the film is responsible for our well-known phrase “Groundhog Day” which we use to describe a “here we go again!” event (this is where I came in!)
As Groundhog Day is almost upon us once more, we avidly await Phil’s predictions for this years’ late winter weather – eagerly hoping for an early beginning of Spring that will shed rays of light and hope on us all – signalling better days ahead. Happy Groundhog Day!