Since the cult classic movie Groundhog Day came out in 1992 the minor folk holiday of the same name has taken on a new meaning. Now it denotes being stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over and over. It has certainly seemed so the last four years as I predicted with dread in 2017:
Groundhog Day 2017
It’s yesterday again!
It will always be yesterday again.
If you don’t
get your ass out of bed right now
and do something
today will replace it
in the time loop.
You don’t want that.
Today is going to be a
But this year seems different, as if that old clock radio finally flipped over to a new day. Who knows? Maybe we learned something. Anyway, the old ogre is gone and something resembling hope is in the air. But whether there are six more weeks of Winter or not seems to depend on whether that hope is stronger than the despair of the raging Coronavirus pandemic that blew in like a lion last March. I know, I dreadfully mix metaphors
Meanwhile it is time to reflect on this strange demi-holiday.
Despite the despair of meteorologists and rationalists Groundhog Day continues to grow in popularity and spread every year. From an obscure folk custom observed by a handful of German immigrants and their decedents in isolate pockets of Pennsylvania in the late 18th and 19th Centuries it has spread nationwide.
In 2015 Wikipedia identified no fewer than 38 woodchucks dragged from their winter hibernation and exposed to the sky across the U.S. and Canada. Come hell or high water virtually every news broadcast in North America today will feature stories about one or more of the creatures and whether he—almost always identified as a male but most frequently a she—will see his shadow supposedly signifying six more weeks of winter weather.
These local observations got big boost with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in 1992. The film has become a beloved classic with a cult following often compared to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. It was filmed in my neck of the woods, as a noted TV weatherman used to say, in Woodstock, Illinois.
Groundhog Day, the movie is celebrated as part of mural in Woodstock which now makes a big deal out of the local roadent reveal.
Just after 7 am Woodstock Willie will make his grumpy appearance from the Gazebo as he has every year since the film came out. The city has stretched the celebration into a week-long festival in hopes of luring pilgrims and tourists. It works. The Woodstock ritual is now the second-most famous celebration in the country behind the original at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which the McHenry County town portrayed in the film.
But this year due to the plague most of the festive events in town have been canceled. Willie will be yanked from his comfort but a thin crowd, masked and social distancing will observe standing in the deep snow on Woodstock Square. At this writing it is not known if Willie will himself be masked, a precaution that also might save his handlers from being bitten.
Part of the spreading appeal of the celebrations is because they are a welcome, if silly, relief from the dreary tedium of the depths of the winter, long after the razzmatazz of the Holidays have past when everyone in cold climes is sick to death of snow, ice, howling winds, and leaden skies. But a philosopher might speculate that the surging popularity of Groundhog Days mirrors the growing anti-intellectualism of modern America and the spreading animus to science now officially embraced by a major political party and reflected in rejection of evolution, denial of climate change, anti-vaccine hokum, and a general rejection of rationality. Or maybe that would be reading too much into a harmless custom.
So how did all of this come to pass? Some claim religious roots stretching back to Neolithic Europe. The growing neo-pagan movement is explicit in laying claim to it, but Catholics have their own customs which may, or may not have been cribbed from older traditions.
Groundhog Day has been traced to pre-Christian Northern European folk traditions stretching back in the mists of time. It is notoriously difficult to pin down precise origins of such oral traditions or to know the complete religious significance of them. Tales about a beast—usually envisioned as a bear or a badger that had powers to predict or control the weather seem to have originated in Norse and/or Germanic tribal societies and spread by diffusion or osmosis to other European peoples including the Slavs to the east and the Celts to the south and west. The celebration of the animal was tied to the half-way point between Winter Solstice—Yule—and the Spring Equinox.
The Celtic/Irish goddess Brigid awakening and emerging in lore.
Although most of the animal and weather lore that leads directly to Groundhog Day are of Northern European origins, modern Wiccans and neo-pagans have identified it with the Celtic festival of Imbolc one of the four seasonal quarter festivals along with Beltane (Spring/Easter), Lughnasadh (Mid-Summer) and Samhain (Fall/Halloween) that fall between the solstices and equinoxes. Traditionally it was a festival marking the first glimmers of spring while still in the grip of the cold and dark of winter. As such it was distantly related to transition predicted by the Norse totem animal, but had no known direct corresponding myth.
Instead it celebrated the goddess Brigid patroness of poetry, healing, smith crafts, midwifery, and all arts of hand. In some stories her feast on February 1 celebrated her recovery after giving birth to the God—the Green Man—who will come into his own and rule from Lughnasadh to winter.
In Ireland with the coming of Christianity the Goddess and her festival became identified with St. Brigid of Kildare, along with Patrick and Brendon one of the three Patron Saints of the country. Now thought to be apocryphal, St. Brigid in lore was first recorded in the 7th Century and expanded upon by later monks and scribes. She was described as the daughter of a Pict slave woman converted by Patrick himself. Born in 451 in Faughart, County Louth she became a holy woman, nun, and abbess who founded a monastery on the site of an ancient temple to the Goddess Brigid in Kildare. She assumed many of the pagan goddess’s attributes and performed many miracles. Stories about the Goddess and the Nun are so intertwined that it is impossible to figure out if the holy woman was real or an invention of the Church intended to comfort converts with familiar and beloved tradition.Catholic St. Brigid, the old goddess of the same name and the off-center straw cross associated with both.
Today the best known tradition associated with the Feast of St. Brigid is the making of the off-center straw crosses from last season’s straw that are hung as talismans in Irish homes through Lent until Easter.
Almost all of the original traditions associated with the Goddess Brigid and Imbolc had been eradicated or simply faded away 18th Century even in Gaelic speaking regions. In the 20th Century Wiccans and other neo-pagans have attempted to revive the old Celtic traditions and in the process invented rituals and lore to fill in the lost gaps. Many believe the Quarter Festivals and old Gods and Goddesses are accessible spiritual metaphors for worship of the natural world and the timeless rhythm of the seasons.
That included borrowing from St. Brigid, as well. Her straw crosses are now described as not Christian at all but as ancient symbols representing the Four Quarter Festivals and the Four Cardinal Directions. There is no way to prove or disprove that assertion.
The Rev. Catharine Clarenbach, a Unitarian Universalist minister explained how modern practitioners view Imbolc in an entry on Nature’s Path, a U.U. pagan experience and earth centered blog hosted by the religious site Patheos. She called it “a light not heat holiday” in which the slowly lengthening days and first tenuous hints at Spring-to-come give hope to those trudging through the hard days. “When people are desperately ill, hope can fuel the long slog toward wholeness and healing, even if that healing is not a cure.”
That certainly ennobles the day beyond the giddy fantasy of groundhog magic.
But our trail to modern Groundhog Day does not end with the re-invention of Imbolc. Indeed other than sharing a date, the two celebrations have little in common.This Christian Feast Day Candlemas, celebrated on February 2, has also been identified with Groundhog Day.
Over in England and Scotland a different Christian tradition evolved—Candlemas observed on February 1, the eve of St. Brigid’s Day and often confused as British equivalent. But Candlemas has very early 4th Century Christmas roots as the Feast of the Presentation celebrated by early Church patriarchs including Methodius of Patara, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory the Theologian, Amphilochius of Iconium, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. It celebrated the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem as an infant.
The celebration slowly spread from the Levant to the rest of the Church and Roman Empire. When the date of Christmas was finally fixed on December 25, the Feast of the Presentation was added to the liturgical calendar forty days later on February 2. That date by happenstance nearly coincided with the old Roman festival Lupercalia which simultaneously celebrated the Roman version of the Greek God Pan who was sacred to shepherds in the Spring lambing festival and Lupa the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, legendary twin founders of Rome. In evolving Roman practice it had become a major popular holiday in Rome itself and associated with the revelry and abandon of other feasts. Lupercalia was outlawed by the ascendant Christians but still widely, if covertly, celebrated by ordinary Romans. The official Feast of the Presentation, coming just before Lent was hoped to ease acceptance of Church teachings.
The Roman festival of Lupercalia celebrating Faunus--the Latin version of the Greek god Pan--as well as the she-wolf who sucked Rome's legendary founders Romulus and Remus evolved into a wild orgy. The Church may have cooped the celebration with Candlemas which also falls in the pre-Lenten Carnival season.
Pope Gelasius I began calling this festival, which set off the carnival season, the Feast of the Candles, later known as Chandelours in parts of France, the Alps, and the Pyrenees and as Candlemas in Britain. It connections to Lupercalia have caused some modern neo-pagans to view that celebration as a Latin equivalent of the German and Norse totem animal observations. That is highly speculative and tenuous at best.
But in Scotland we do find Candlemas as the first indication that the Northern European custom had been introduced to Britain. An early Scots Gaelic proverb went:
The serpent will
come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
Although it was a serpent, not a bear, that was mentioned, the emergence of a totem animal to herald Spring was clearly there. Over time looking for badgers stretching their legs at Candlemas became a folk tradition in rural areas of Scotland and England.
Without mention of an animal witness this early English verse asserts
If Candlemas be
fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
But that custom was never wide spread and did not seem to have traveled to the New World with early settlers from the colonies.
It took German peasants lured to frontier areas of Pennsylvania in the late 1700s to do that. The use of groundhogs for prognostication rather than bears or badgers—both of which were far more dangerous and hard to manage than the lumbering and common local rodents—was well established when the first recorded note of the celebration was made in English in an 1841 diary entry by Morgantown shopkeeper James Morris:
Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.
All across central and western Pennsylvania where Germans had settled in large numbers local Groundhog lodges sprang up in many towns to celebrate the annual appearance of the weather predicting critters. An elaborate communal meal called a Fersommling featuring groaning tables, orations, skits, and music led up to a ritual presentation of the local groundhog. These lodges and festival gatherings were also an important tools to preserve German cultural identity in communities pressed hard by Englanders—native English speakers. Only the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect was allowed to be spoken at 19th Century Fersommlings fines levied for each English word uttered.
19th Century cartoons like this helped spread Groundhog Day from the rural German communities in Pennsylvania.
In 1887 in a burst of civic boosterism Colby Camps, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit promoted his home town as the official Groundhog Day home and the local beast, always named Phil generation after generation regardless of gender, as the town’s official meteorologist. The first story rapidly got picked up by other local and national publications which eagerly reported the result of Phil’s observation. It became an annual tradition and publicity for the event and town grew year after year.
By the 1920 towns from the East Texas Hill Country and North Carolina, many with their own German immigrant populations, to Ontario and French speaking Quebec were hosting their own celebrations.
Then, as noted, the 1993 movie inspired still more.Groundhog Day will goes on again in Woodstock this year but with lots of snow, masks and social distancing.
Today the accuracy of the various groundhogs is in dispute. Backers, including local Groundhog society boost accuracy rates of between 80 and 90%. Cold hard statistical analysis refutes that unsubstantiated claim. A study of several Canadian towns with Groundhog celebrations dating back 30 to 40 years found only 37% rate of accuracy. The record at Punxsutawney dating all the way back to that first 1887 outing is hardly better—only 38%. Both are much worse than random 50/50 odds.