GROUNDHOG DAY CELEBRATIONS
JANUARY – here in the Northeast we are knee deep in winter. One of the few things to look forward to is the annual prediction of the underground weatherman. All you never wanted to know about the GROUNDHOG.
GROUNDHOG DAY: A SHADOWY CELEBRATION
On February second Groundhog Day is celebrated. It’s not
every animal who has its own holiday or who has such a reputation
as a prognosticator of weather. Or to put it another way, why do
otherwise sane people get up before dawn in the dead of winter
and walk to the top of a hill looking for a groundhog burrow?
Why do we do what we do?
Marmota monax, groundhog, a member of the rodent family, is
distinguished only by his once a year appearance on February 2nd
to predict the arrival of spring. To clear up any confusion groundhogs and woodchucks are both
Marmota monax. Woodchuck comes from a mispronounced Native
American word ”wuchuk” or ”otcheck” which may have to do with the
tongue twister usually brought up in conjunction with him: How
much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Or, if you’ve practiced that one, how much ground could a
groundhog hog if a groundhog would hog ground.
The groundhog/woodchuck is a weed eater – grasses, plantain,
clover, common in the northeastern United States and Southern
Canada. He loves the early morning and the late afternoon sun.
I often see one who sits on a fence post and watches traffic
going by on the expressway. I had an idea about a groundhog love
affair broken up by the New York State Department of
Transportation. She lived beyond the northbound lane and he
lived over the median past the southbound lane. Perhaps that is
one explanation for the number of dead groundhogs on our
highways. They are a common sight roadside, a brown bundle
appearing to wear a red corsage, which is soon pounded to the
color of concrete.
Not as fast on his feet as his cousin the squirrel, the
groundhog is slow moving, but feisty when aroused. I’ve seen one
rise hissing on his hind legs to fight off a dog. He looked
formidable indeed. They are not overly bright, but don’t seem to
do much harm unless you have an alfalfa field overrun by them.
Farmers tell me they burrow under a field undermining it so
badly that when you drive a tractor over the field, you
find yourself capsized, the big front wheels sitting in a roomy
Gardeners complain that young shoots and leaves become an
attraction for groundhogs, as well as rabbits, but contend that
while rabbits nibble, groundhogs act like pigs, chomping through a row of vegetables or herbs until there is nothing left. The
worst thing about them is their catholic diet. Vicious gardeners
retaliate with rifles, or gas bombs.
Groundhogs usually mate in February or March and within a
month a litter of four or five babies are born. By mid summer
the family disperses and searches out new burrows and begins to
eat to put on a layer of fat for the long sleep. In fall, the
groundhog enters his burrow and closes it up. He curls into a
ball, head between the legs, arms folded around the neck and goes
to sleep. The body temperature drops to between 40 and 50
degrees, the pulse is faint, respiration slows, and the long
winter passes by overhead while the groundhog sleeps like the
dead. He can neither feel nor hear and it would take several
hours in a very warm place to awaken him.
Early settlers found groundhogs tasty especially in groundhog
stew, and if you ever visit Punxsutawney, PA, for the
Prognosticalion festivities you can purchase a groundhog cook
book or two although this seems rather cannabalistic for a town
that made its reputation on the groundhog’s annual predictions.
Historians guess that the groundhog came into modern
folklore via the German settlement of Pennsylvania and their
belief that the badger of their native land would predict good or
bad luck for sowing and planting. Badgers, nowhere as docile as
the native groundhogs, were soon replaced. Others suggest it was the hedgehog who predicted, equally truculent and harder to
handle than the badger. So it seems that prognostication fell to
the groundhog because of its reputation as an easy going, easy to
catch, easy to handle, animal, or are there other reasons.
In Druid Britain of 2000 to 3000 years ago there were four
main holidays. Because Druids worshiped the sun, their holidays were the four
main turning points of the year. They were fine accurate
astronomers. The year ended at All Saints Day or November first.
All the fires were extinguished and new ones built (fires, little
The other holidays were May Day on May first (Beltaine) when
the sun began to grow strong; August first (Lugnasad) when it was
at its peak; and February first (Imbolc) when it was about as far
away as it would ever get. These dates are the halfway points
between the solstices (6/21 and 12/21) and the equinoxes (3/21
and 9/21). Since the Druids liked three-day holidays as much as
we love do, it’s not hard to assume that the
festivities on Imbolc drifted over onto the day after.
Imbolc was associated with the sacred flames that purified
the land and encouraged fertility and the emergence of the sun
from its winter sleep. On February first rites of
prognostication were held. A great bonfire was built on a
hilltop and all the young men made their mark or name on a white
stone which was placed in the fire. When the fire cooled, each
man searched for his stone and if he didn’t find it, if the fire had taken it, he had been chosen for the supreme honor. He had
been selected by Bel (the sun god) to offer his life/spirit to be
sacrificed for the purification and general good of the tribe.
This bears close association with Shirley Jackson’s short story
of the scapegoat, “The Lottery.”
The one who is chosen to be sacrificed for the good of the
tribe, the offering, fertilizes the fields for the coming
planting time. This is a common motif of early agricultural
societys’ religious practices. Until the 1800’s this February
ritual was observed in the Highlands of Scotland only ‘the chosen
one’ jumped over or ran between the bonfires in a metaphor of a
metaphor. (Bonfire is said to be an elision of ”bone fire” by
Imbolc is also associated with the lambing season when the
sheep lactated and was sometimes called ”oimelc” which means
”sheep’s milk”. This is related to the fertility aspect of the
mother goddess Brigit or Brigantia (High One, in Celtic), a
respected member of the Druid’s pantheon, daughter of Dana, the
female principle. Brigit was the goddess of prophecy and
divination as well as fertility, home, hearth, and healing.
February 1st was the day sacred to Brigit.
The similarity of dates, that point in temperate climates
where the sun is as far away from the earth as it will ever be
and at its weakest, six weeks between the formal turning points
of our solar year make the connection between Druids and groundhog
Also, there is the relationship between
the groundhog and mother goddess cults, and the synchronistic
tendency of the Romans to adapt local gods to their own, a
practice which was kept by the Roman Catholic Church which was
busy ‘civilizing’ the known world.
In the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints there is a St.
Brigit who enters about 400 to 500 A.D. St. Brigit was said to
have been born at sunrise on February 1st. She became one of the
patron saints of Ireland and at Kildare she founded the first
nunnery. The nuns of St. Brigit in Kildare tended a holy fire
(like Rome’s Vestal Virgins) up until the monastaries were
destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539.
One of the legends about St. Brigit is the story of a blind
nun for whom Brigit restored sight. When the nun Dara saw, she
realized that the clarity of sight blurred God in the eye of her
soul and asked to be returned to the beauty of darkness. The
Druids were especially fond of riddles such as this which are
based on reversals.
The saint was said to have bathed in milk (lamb’s milk?) at
birth and her house appeared to be on fire (born of the flame).
She is revered as the midwife of the Virgin Mary (the mother of
Candlemas Day (February 2nd) commemorates the purification
of the Virgin Mary. According to Jewish law Mary was required to
go to the temple in Jerusalem to be purified forty days after
the birth of Jesus (the winter solstice) and to present him to God. Luke tells us that he was “a light to lighten the
Gentiles. . . .” For Roman Catholics February 2nd is also the
time for blessing of candles for the altar and the congregation
used to march through the church holding lighted tapers
representing the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into
the Temple in Jerusalem.
In Celtic folklore candles are used for divination or to
keep evil spirits away with a circle of flame. They are of
course, the little suns. Long after the last Druid had gone to
his fiery reward, farmers circled the fields carrying torches to
keep the evil spirits away and purify the field for the seed.
Burning off the fields in spring is a ritual that only recently
ended with local anti-burning ordinances.
The French scholar Joseph Vendryes suggests that Candlemas
is patterned on the Roman Lustrations (feast of purification held
in early February) commemorating the actions of the earth mother
goddess Ceres (or Demeter) who sought her daughter Persephone (or
Kore) (“European Religions, Ancient” 767). Persephone had been
kidnapped by Pluto (Dis or Hades), the lord of the underworld
(darkness), and Ceres, distraught, neglected her earthly duties
so that darkness fell over the earth and all the vegetation died
while she hunted for her daughter. When Persephone returned from
the underworld, spring came to the earth and life began again.
Freed from the dark realm of Pluto, Persephone brought spring to
the world but because she had eaten six seeds of the pomegranate, she was required to spend six months in each realm.
According to Thomas Bulfinch’s rendition of the tale, during
her search for Persephone, Ceres had made a promise to the son of
a family who had befriended her in her grief. She had promised
to teach him the use of the plough and how to sow seed. She
taught him about the grains and agriculture and he was to teach
mankind. Triptolemus built a temple for Ceres in Eleusis and she
was worshiped under the name of the Eleusinian
mysteries. Bulfinch calls the fable an
allegory, signifying the seed corn which appears to be dead,
is buried under the ground (resides with Pluto), and is reborn.
.Agricultural societies were fascinated with the miracle of the
seed. A dull piece of matter, a tiny pellet which appeared to
have no life at all was buried in the earth at the right time
(this is all important) and it comes back to life. This is why
we bury our dead in the ground like seeds.
The groundhog was sacred to many earth mother cults because
he lived burrowed in the earth. He appeared to die (hibernating)
and in the spring was born again much like the seed. Bears were
also sacred and for the same reason, but I don’t intend to burrow
any deeper into this aspect.
When the days lengthen, when winter lets go of the earth the
Great Mother or her representative will let you know when it’s time to plant just as the lengthening daylight hours let the seed
know it’s time to begin the cycle of growth.
And so the old weather rhyme passed down from Druid times :
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain
Go winter, and come not back again. These agricultural societies lived much closer to the edge of
survival than we do. Crop failure, bad weather, were not just
financial disaster, but starvation, death. Good weather meant
everything and they were willing to sacrifice much for it.
One of the most important jobs then of the Druid priests was
to predict the proper time to plant. Since rhyme was holy
to the Druids we might assume these old rhymes are adaptations
of memorable predictions.
In the northeast United States, already six weeks in the
dark grasp of winter, Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his
Pennsylvania burrow on the top of Gobbler’s Knob and makes his
prediction. If he sees his shadow, he’s scared back into his
hole. So we should all have the good sense to be afraid of the
dark in us. If he sees only the gray winter sky, spring will
come soon. Their predictions have become an amusing story for
a slow news day..
Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting for 103 years
(or his descendants since ten years is a good long life for a
groundhog). Young men in the Highlands of Scotland were still building
bonfires in the middle of the 19th century to celebrate the
immanent return of the sun, and who knows how long ago the Celtic
peoples of Europe gathered to hear the Druid priests interpret
the signs and rhyme the results.
One way or another, we drag the past with us. It casts a long shadow.
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