Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Groundhog Day

As I write this, it is only a week until Groundhog Day. That's right, only 7 more shopping days before that furry creature pops his head out of the ground and tells us if we can put our winter coasts away.

We don’t have a beaver day or a raccoon day or even a bald eagle day. So why does the groundhog get a day of his own, not to mention a Hollywood movie starring Bill Murray?

The groundhog's day is February 2. Granted, it’s not a federal holiday; nobody gets off work. But still, to have a day named after you is quite a feat. But what is special about the groundhog?

It stems from the ancient belief that hibernating creatures were able to predict the arrival of springtime by their emergence. The German immigrants known as Pennsylvania Dutch brought the tradition to America in the 18th century. They had once regarded the badger as the winter-spring barometer. But the job was reassigned to the groundhog after importing their Candlemas traditions to the U.S. Candlemas commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of Jesus.

Candlemas is one of the four "cross-quarters" of the year, occurring half way between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. Traditionally, it was believed that if Candlemas was sunny, the remaining six weeks of winter would be stormy and cold. But if it rained or snowed on Candlemas, the rest of the winter would be mild.

If an animal "sees its shadow," it must be sunny, so more wintry weather is predicted: The groundhog and badger were not the only animals that have been used to predict spring.

Other Europeans used the bear or hedgehog, but in any case the honor belonged to a creature that hibernated. Its emergence symbolized the imminent arrival of spring.

Traditionally, the groundhog is supposed to awaken on February 2 and come up out of his burrow. If he sees his shadow, he will return to the burrow for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, he remains outside and starts his year, because he knows that spring has arrived early.

In the U.S., the “official” groundhog is kept in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Every February 2, amid a raucous celebration early in the morning, “Punxsutawney Phil” as the groundhog is called, is pulled from his den by his keepers, who are dressed in tuxedos. Phil then whispers his weather prediction into the ear of his keeper, who then announces it to the anxiously-awaiting crowd. Of course, this is for show.

It’s a fun celebration and a great tradition. But Phil's keepers secretly decide upon the "forecast" in advance of the groundhog's arousal.

Besides, spring always arrives on or near March 21, so whether the groundhog decides to return to his den or remain above ground, the sad fact is spring will always have to wait at least six more weeks.

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