Groundhog Day has roots in Germany
January 30, 2005
Ditch the Doppler and rouse the rodent. Groundhog Day is nigh.
If you’ve ever wondered how a chubby varmint cousin to the squirrel became revered as the weather marmot, the meteorologist of zoology, join the club. A colleague of mine who got married on a Feb. 2 is consistently annoyed that when she divulges the date of her anniversary, she’s greeted with yuks and reminded, again, that her bliss began on Groundhog Day.
When I found out, I immediately told her to travel to Punxsutawney, Pa. The perfect romantic getaway. The home of Groundhog Day.
She did not go. She does not believe.
The Germans sure did, and many famously settled in Pennsylvania. They apparently brought with them the European legends surrounding Candlemas, says Thomas Tullos, longtime expatriate professor with the University of Maryland University College-Europe.
The holiday falls on Feb. 2, which my cubicle neighbor will happily recognize as her anniversary, and commemorated the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple. The holiday’s name derives from candles, which Tullos says the Catholic Church would bless on the day for use during the rest of the year. Earlier Romans believed the candles warded off evil.
The varmint bit is this: The Romans, and later pagans, celebrated early February as the time between winter solstice and spring equinox. If the weather was bright, the theory held, the remainder of winter would be cold. In Europe, a mild late winter could mean an early start at planting crops. Tullos says that in Scotland, tradition said that foul weather on that day meant winter had already passed its prime.
Europeans watched animals emerge from their hibernation around this time. If they truly emerged and stayed above terra firma, spring must be on its way.
“The German proverb speaks of a badger rather than a groundhog,” Tullos says via e-mail. “There are other slight differences.”
Other accounts talk of using hedgehogs.
“It wasn’t like they were making a holiday out of it per se,” says Punxsutawney native Alan Freed, who is also Webmaster on a number of Groundhog Day sites. “They were legitimately using it as a way to forecast the time to plant their crops.”
Take the old German saying, relayed to us here by one of Freed’s sites, www.groundhog.org:
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until the May.
Some of the Germans who moved to Pennsylvania wanted to test this. But no hedgehogs rose on Feb. 2.
“They didn’t have hedgehogs here,” Freed said. “So the closest thing they could find is a groundhog.”
Freed said groundhogs are furry and cute, while those euro hedgehogs are spiky — “a little more punk, I guess.”
Like any truly anarchic punk would say, Pennsylvania is pretty bleeping cold in February. Were there any hedgehogs, they probably wouldn’t rise anyway. So, sometime in the 1880s, a few Punxsutawney townsfolk decided they would go in search of some kind of sleeping hog thing out in the woods nonetheless. Off they went to dig up our slumbering groundhog.
So it was on Feb. 2, 1886, that the legend of Punxsutawney Phil was born. He did not see his shadow — a good sign. If Phil sees his shadow, it’s supposed to mean six more weeks of winter. Clear bright skies actually mean colder weather, one theory goes, while cloud cover means warmer days ahead and spring showers.
A group called the Inner Circle formed to feed, pamper and speak to Phil. The town claims its Phil is the only real rodent seer, and that he is the same who made his debut more than 100 years ago. Members of the Inner Circle claim they feed Phil magic punch to keep him kicking.
Freed’s been to each Groundhog Day party in Punxsutawney for the past 20 years.
“When I first started, growing up, the numbers in the crowd were maybe 1,000 people,” he says, now 36. “You could go down there and park. There wasn’t too much hoopla around it.”
Since that Bill Murray movie, as many as 30,000 people show up. The party starts at 3 a.m., frigid or not.
“Now it’s like a rock concert more than anything,” Freed says.
Phil emerges from a climate-controlled burrow at Gobbler’s Knob and speaks to the Inner Circle, the members of which convey his prediction.
The masses arrive from all over. From the West. From Canada. Even the Old Country.
“I’ve met people that have come from Germany,” Freed says. “It just blows my mind. It’s tons of fun to meet them. A lot of them have their birthdays on Groundhog Day. That’s their excuse.”
Some of the tourists even get married there. Only they declare their love on Groundhog Day not out of fluke, but because of something deep. Something spiritual.
Baby, they believe.