If you live in North America, you are likely ‘familiar’ with ‘Groundhog Day’: on the 2nd of February, ‘The Groudhog wakes from winter slumber and sticks hear head out of her den.
If it is sunny enough for the groundhog to cast a shadow, the sleepy gal will get startled and run back into her den to continue napping. This will cause the cold winter weather to continue for 6 more weeks. If it is cloudy, there will be no shadow to startle her and she’ll wake up nice and slowly. She will then stay awake, causing the winter weather to recede and the spring weather to come early.
So, what is this quaint little legend all about?
Perhaps there is a reversal of causality: this could simply be a weather pattern observation, set into a quaint little story. After all, during the coldest winter temperatures, the sky is cloud-free and sunny. Clouds act like a blanket that traps heat, so cloudy winter days tend to be warmer. That is why it never snows when the temperatures are cold. (We are talking relative winter temperatures here….as in, -40 degrees (Celsius and Fahrenheit ‘meet’ this point) is ‘chilly’, -10 degrees Celsius is ‘warm’. Remember, I am writing from Canada.) When it gets that cold, one could not even drive a groundhog out of its den!
It is conceivable that, over generations, people observed that if this time period was particularly cold – it was likely to signal that the winter weather would drag on for a bit. Conversely, if the temperature at this time was mild, it would be followed by more mild weather, bringing the spring in earlier. So, the co-relation.
Plausible. Or, the roots of ‘Groundhog Day’ may lie somewhere else….
There are several things which are significant:
- The date – 2nd of February (plus or minus a day or two)
- 6 more weeks of winter
- The Groundhog herself
- The Groundhog affects the weather
1. The date: 2nd of February
From earliest historical records of human civilizations, we have seen that the solstices and equinoxes had been noted and celebrated by our ancestors. These 4 ‘easy to define’ (through simple observation) markers of the Earth’s annual cycle are called ‘quarter days’. The midpoints between them – when that season is most ‘intense’ – are also marked: these are called ‘cross-quarter days’.
Many cultures have described this ‘cycle’ as the ‘Wheel of the Year’:
This image is from the names of the ‘marker days’ reflect the one of traditions descended from the British isles. The ‘Pagan’ belief systems which accompany the annual cycles associate various Gods and Goddesses with specific parts of this cycle.
The 2nd of February is Candlemas, often also called Imbolc. When considering the roots ‘Groundhog Day’, its date would suggest that we are not discussing simple long-term weather pattern observation.
2. ‘6 more weeks of winter’
This is also closely connected to the Wheel of the Year: the period between each of the 8 ‘markers’ along the wheel is 6 weeks.
Let us consider the ‘season’ of ‘winter:
Astronomically, Winter Solstice marks the first day of winter and the darkest day of the year – after this point, daylight periods: begin to lengthen. Astrologically, this marks the ‘Rebirth of the Sun’: still too ‘young’ to bring warmth, but his strength is growing.
Even though the Sun had been ‘reborn’ and the days are now getting longer, the momentum of the ‘cooling’ takes 6 weeks to ‘ripen’. That is why, 6 weeks after the beginning of a season, its’ ‘weather characteristics’ are the ‘strongest’. And, winter is usually most bitter around the beginning of February… just as we approach the ‘height of the season ‘holiday’: Candlemas.
Accordingly, following Candlemas, winter begins to recede. It is still there – but overall, the temperatures begin to warm, the sun is more visible and begins to slowly but surely melt the snow… and it will only be 6 weeks before the day is longer than the night!
Is it only co-incidence that the ‘Groundhog Day’ tradition cites this identical time period of 6 weeks?
3. The ‘Groundhog’ herself
Spring is the time when things begin to grow. Accordingly, Pagans associated growth and fecundity with spring and anthropomorphised the principle into the Goddess of Spring and Renewal: Eostera (also spelled Ostara, and about 8 other ways, like ‘Easter’).
What is interesting about this goddess is that she is said to ‘awake’ on the winter cross-quarter day, Candlemas. As she awakens, she adds her own magic to strengthen the growing Sun and because of her effort, the winter begins to recede.
Her power is greatest at the full moon following the Spring Equinox: that is how we derive the timing of our Easter celebrations even today. (Yes, there is a ‘detour’ through the Judeo-Christian tradition, but their ‘timimng’ of these festivals in Judaism and Christianity ultimately leads to the same archetype, even if through Ishtar and Isis.)
Since chickens only lay eggs when the day is longer than the night, the Spring Equinox marked the return of this cherished source of nutrition: it became one of the symbols of the Goddess Eostera. With their renown fecundity – and the timing of giving birth to their babies – rabbits also became symbols of Eostera. And yes, that is why the ‘Easter Bunny brings eggs’.
Yet, there was another shape Eostera is said to take on when appearing to humans: Groundhog.
So, is it co-incidence that it is Groundhog, as opposed to another hibernating animal, day?
4. The Groundhog affects the weather
Our little modern myth of Groundhog Day specifically states that it is the groundhog who changes the weather – not the other way around. Why should the groundhogs ‘going back to sleep’ cause the weather to be colder, while ‘staying awake’ would cause it to warm up?
Curiously enough, it is when Eostera awakens and lends a helping hand to the Sun that the Pagan myths say winter begins to recede… Co-incidence? I think not!
Today, ‘Groundhog Day’ is in no way a ‘religious celebration’. Not in the least! It is nothing more than a bit of fun to liven up chilly winter days.
Yes, it contains an echo of its roots in old Pagan traditions. And that’s great! Just as ‘inheriting your mother’s smile’ does not make one the same person as one’s mother, having fun with Groundhog Day does not mean one is inheriting its ancient religious significance.
Yet, just as looking at an old family photo album is fun, allowing one to trace certain characteristics they inherited from various ancestors, it is also fun to trace our today’s fun little customs, to see which echos of our ancestor’s traditions we have inherited! It’s just a different kind of a ‘photo album’…