So, today, if the groundhog sees his shadow (or out here, if Panhandle Pete the prairie dog sees his), we will have six more weeks of winter. I’ve been told that some folks on the east coast and upper Midwest are laying an ambush to blindfold Punxsutawney Phil so he can’t see anything.
If you think about it, weather forecasting by animals has a long tradition. It’s also rather odd to do it on Candlemas, the eve of the feast of St. Blaise, Imbolc, and the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Or perhaps not.
Zoomancy is the three-dollar term for using animals to predict the future or to answer questions. Many cultures used chickens or other poultry, either watching their flight and reading the patterns, or by watching the birds peck grain off the ground and determining the meaning by the grain eaten or left behind (it varied and varies from place to place). The Babylonians would approach a sleeping ox and splash its head with water, then observe the results, one presumes from a safe distance away. Although sometimes the questions asked were weather specific, animal divinations of this kind are not quite the same as observing a groundhog on February 2.
In many times and places, people used livestock or other animals and birds as short-term weather forecasters. In some cases they believed that the gods had given animals special knowledge. In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, Pa Ingalls comments that because animals can’t build houses or make themselves warmer clothes, G-d gave them a weather sense so they could flee storms and hard weather. Along those lines, I was taught that if cows are lying down at certain times of day, it means rain will come. If chickens stay out in a rainstorm, the rain will continue for several hours. The chickens somehow know that there’s no point in trying to take shelter until the rain stops, so they might as well keep foraging. Pigs grunt differently when rain’s coming. Swallows fly lower before a storm (there’s actually a scientific reason for that one, based on atmospheric pressure.) Cats act skittish before a storm (Athena T. Cat being an exception, apparently.)
But these are all short-term forecasts, only a few hours to a day at most. Longer term forecasting is a little different. I was taught the wooly bear winter guide. If you find a wooly bear caterpillar in the fall and look at his stripes, a wide orange stripe means a mild winter. A narrow orange stripe is a hard winter. But you must have the right kind of wooly bear, and I have yet to locate one of them. Some people observed birds and animals that cache food for the winter, thinking that large caches meant a hard winter coming, or that caches higher up in trees signified a lot of snow (making ground-level stashes harder to locate.)
So, Groundhog Day. It is a recent development, going back to the 1880s. If the groundhog sees his shadow (it is a sunny day), then winter will extend for another six weeks. Overcast signifies that spring will arrive sooner.
Why February 2? Well, we are at the point when most people can tell that the days are getting longer. And the date has a long history for religious observances as a Quarter Day and a feast of the Catholic Church. If you go back, you will find that Candlemas Day’s weather has more to do with the forecast than does the groundhog. Or you could use St. Swithin’s Day, or other weather saints. Since animals had uncanny knowledge, it became easy to add an animal seeing her shadow, or not seeing it, to the “sunny or showers” idea. In Western Europe, it is a consistent belief that if Candlemas is clear, winter will last for a long time. I wonder if it is because clear skies in winter tend to come with arctic high pressure, which is very cold and dense air. Or the law of opposites, like telling someone to “break a leg” before a performance or flight.
Why groundhog? Because they hibernate. And probably because no one in their right mind is going to poke at a badger to see if he sees his shadow or not. And wolverines…. nope. Chipmunks are too small and don’t always hibernate depending on where you are, so groundhog it was.