Why Groundhog?

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.

Groundhog scandals.

22 thoughts on “Why Groundhog?

  1. Don’t have the source handy, or if it’s something I mis-remembered years ago. The groundhog tradition is based on a European tradition where they used hedgehogs instead of groundhogs. In Europe it makes sense, sunny means cold front from the arctic and colder weather. Cloudy is warmer humid air. It doesn’t really work for North America, yet it’s still tradition.

      • We’re warm and wet. So much so I feel like I am back in Forks again. As I said yesterday, I would like six weeks OF winter. . . period.

  2. I recall some cartoon where they showed the groundhog outside, noticing or not noticing his shadow… and then back in his hole… equipped with the most advanced weather technology of the day.

    • “The Babylonians would approach a sleeping ox and splash its head with water, then observe the results, ”

      I wonder if we can conduct an experiment at the next LibertyCon? After all, we have cell phone video, so unlike the Babylonians, we can have instant replay….. 😎

  3. I went to Punxsatawney years ago to watch live; it was an over the top ceremony with crowds and LOTS of drunk people.
    Ever notice that winter ending as usual is virtually the same date as ‘6 more weeks of winter’ goes until?

    • Bingo! We have a winner. That realization took me over thirty years as well, “If X happens, then blaah blaah; but if Y happens then the same blaah blaah happens but we word it differently”

      It’s a great excuse for a post-Christmas party though.

  4. LOL, the link is hilarious too… The cows story, is NOT an urban legend. That one is fact. And when they’re huddled up in the corner of the pasture, prepare for a blow…

  5. When St. Alban’s Day is bright and clear, there will be two winters in that year.
    –Ye Olde English Folklore

    Of course, they used a different calendar back then. Not too many people are watching the sunrise in June to divine the winter weather.

  6. Actually, I have heard that the tradition goes back considerably further than indicated here. Rhys Carpenter in his (1958) book on ‘Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics’ (pp. 152-5) traces the custom to the ancient Bear cult of Europe, via the myth of Salmoxis, which read great significance into the resurrection of that hibernating animal from his long Winter sleep. All trace of the human sacrifice that was originally involved has happily disappeared, and the shamanic pretensions of travel to the underworld with the bear spirit have gone with it, but some small remnants of the cult remain.

    “In Silesia, Hungary, and Carinthia the feast of Candlemas [Feb. 2 – six weeks from the Winter solstice] is still bear’s-day in popular observance; and on that precise day (it is maintained) the hibernating bear emerges to see whether or not he casts a shadow: if he sees his shadow he must retire again for six more weeks of winter.

    “[I]f we will think back all the way to the Arcadian bear cult on Mount Lykaion and remember that in that hallowed precinct the bear lost his shadow, because the shadow is the soul and the living being which descends into the underworld of death must leave its soul down there … we shall understand that the bear emerging from his deathlike winter sleep, having lain as one dead, must have left his shadow behind him. If he has not done so, if an accusing shadow moves besides him in the wan springtime sunlight, he has not truly been among the dead and he must go back and properly sleep his winter sleep of the full six weeks before he can finally emerge again to announce the rebirth of the world and the imminence of the springtide.”

    The adherents of the bear cult transferred their attention to other animals when bears became scarce. In Germany the humble badger took the honours, and when Germans moved to America they gave the part to the friendly little Groundhog – who inspires no awe or terror of the otherworld.

  7. “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight.
    If Candlemas Day be dark and rain, Winter is gone, and will not come again.”

  8. Of course, there is a basis for all of this: if the sky is clear, you still have colder and clearer air which has had the moisture condensed out of it; if it’s cloudy, it’s likely because a south wind is bringing in warmer air with more moisture and thus a thaw,

  9. I thought it was made up by New England teenagers to get out of washing dishes and other chores on Candlemass Day. “Hey! Let’s go look for the groundhog and if it sees a shadow.”

  10. That groundhogs tend to pop out around this time of year to see what’s up may have something to do with it. Reportedly, the males go scouting for females. The ones in the fields around my house have been digging out burrow entrances that collapsed over the winter.

    Other groundhog tidbits:
    – The central Asian groundhog has been tagged as the source of the Black Death. So wiping groundhogs from the face of the earth would be self defense.
    – Older, bigger groundhogs will stay low and eat near the burrow entrance, sending the young, stupid ones farther afield.
    – Another name for them is ‘whistlepig’ as they give a shrill whistle to warn of danger. If you whistle just right, the young stupid ones will stand up to look for the threat, making it easier to shoot them.
    – Groundhogs can climb trees, but will get tired and fall after about six hours. If you plan to chase one up a tree, bring snacks.
    – Groundhogs use the same burrows for decades, with specific rooms for specific tasks, including a restroom. Older burrows can stretch hundreds of feet underground. (I put 40+ smoke bombs down a set of holes once and then sandbagged them. Smoke was coming out of the back entrances 40-50 yards from the main entrance, in three different directions.)
    – If you urinate in a groundhog hole every day, they’ll abandon the hole and move.
    – Pouring gasoline down a groundhog hole and lighting it is a bad idea. Particularly when the groundhog has dug his burrow in the roots of a tree.
    – Like squirrels, groundhogs only see motion. If you’re downwind, move very slowly, and only move when they’re looking away you can walk up to within a few feet of a groundhog without them noticing.
    – A turtle trap with an apple slice in it works well for catching them.
    – I had way too much free time as a kid.

    • I recall my grandpa blowing up a portion of the backyard by pouring gas down a mole hole, plugging it and giving it time to vaporize through the tunnels well, then opening it and lighting it.
      Grandma was in the house and NOT impressed. 🙂

  11. It’s a handy holiday for me. I never got Christmas cards out on time, so I switched to Groundhog’s Day cards about a decade ago. Friends and family look forward to it and woe betide me should I send a boring one (it’s usually a silly photoshop involving the cats and/or us; groundhogs are not usually involved).

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