Groundhog Day Ritual Revisited

The annual reenactment of the groundhog’s mystical weather prediction during mid-winter February 2nd is an ancient symbolic ritual dating back to the religious observance of Candlemas, particularly in Germany.

In Germany, a badger might have been the prognosticator of good news for a short winter, but only if he didn’t see his shadow. If he did, of course, winter was assumed to last at least another six weeks.

The groundhog came into the picture here in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania brought by Amish agriculturalists across the pond from the old countries to continue the historic tradition handed down by generations of farmers.

On Candlemas, clergy would bless candles and give them to the people, symbolic of the long winter days and weeks of cold. And with a certain critter’s prediction of further wintry weather came the superstition of lighting candles to scare away the evil spirits of the dark winter nights.

Groundhog Day’s most famous anthropomorphic character, Punxsatawney Phil, is now annually dragged out of his hibernating mid- winter nap for national media coverage, likely not pleased to the point of trying to bite his handlers, on occasion.

However, the groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, is perfect to play the mystical role assigned to seeing a shadow. He spends at least half of his life in the semi-darkness shade in Earthly subterranean chambers he has dug for his low profile, coming out mainly at first light of day and retiring well before dark. Always on alert for danger, he frequently stands up straight to view his surroundings, thus creating a tall enough pillar to cast a long shadow that could startle any sensible mammal.

Although we may evaluate Groundhog Day as a humorous re-enactment, there is more rhyme and reason to environmental awareness by judging the length of growing seasons or predicting winter weather such as we have just suffered through.

And still, the groundhog myth to be able to predict the length of winter is accurate only about half the time.

I have illustrated a groundhog family coming out after an unexpected blizzard hoping to eat green grass and, horrified at seeing their shadows, a delay of the arrival of an early spring must ensue.

By George B. Emmons

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