As I write this column, Punxsutawney Phil hasn’t yet poked his head out of his burrow to predict how many more weeks winter will last. But I’m betting that whether the day is cloudy or sunny, six weeks will be a pretty good guess.
Until I began researching Groundhog Day, I didn’t realize that groundhogs–also known as woodchucks, whistle-pigs, and land beavers–are squirrels. So, too, are chipmunks, prairie dogs, and marmots. “Land squirrels,” to be exact, who retreat to underground burrows when frightened instead of running up a tree as their “tree squirrel” cousins do.
Another big difference between land squirrels and tree squirrels is that the former hibernate during winter.
Groundhogs gorge themselves throughout spring and summer on grass, leaves, grubs, snails, and whatever tasty treats they find growing in people’s gardens. In their spare time, they dig burrows. A groundhog’s short powerful limbs and curved thick claws are perfect for digging. So perfect, in fact, that the average groundhog moves about 700 pounds of dirt when digging a typical 45-foot tunnel.
It is into those tunnels that groundhogs retreat when threatened. They sleep and raise their babies there. And it is those tunnels that make them the bane of both farmers and suburbanites.
Most groundhogs have a separate winter burrow, constructed below the frost line and perfect for curling up for a long winter’s nap. During that nap, as is the case for all true hibernators, a groundhog’s heart rate and body temperature plunge. It lives off stores of fat accumulated during the warm months and will
emerge in spring desperately hungry.
Just how did the tradition of Groundhog Day get started?
It goes back several centuries to Europe, where early Christians celebrated “Candlemas Day” on February 2. Members of the clergy blessed and distributed
candles to the people. And kept an eye on the weather. If the day was sunny, an
animal emerging from hibernation would see its shadow, become frightened, and retreat to its burrow for another six weeks. Cloudy weather meant that winter was essentially over. They even had a poem to go along with their
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas bring cloud and rain
Winter will not come again.
But a later stanza of the poem shows that they realized the
superstition was nonsensical. No matter what the weather on February 2, there was likely still a good bit of winter left:
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay.
Germans watched a badger for the weather prediction. In America, groundhogs were chosen instead. A storekeeper in Morgantown, Pennsylvania noted in his diary on February 2, 1841 the local observance of Candlemas/Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney held its first official Groundhog Day celebration in 1886, which has, of course, grown by leaps and bounds in the ensuing years.
Why February 2? Because it’s halfway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, a time when the Northern Hemisphere begins its ascent out of winter’s darkest days and looks ahead to spring. Groundhog Day is the only American holiday focused entirely on weather. It’s a silly holiday, but an optimistic one. Hooray for that.
By the time you read this, we’ll all know whether Phil saw his shadow. Next week, I’ll tell why it might soon be hard to celebrate Groundhog Day here in Putnam County.
(February 5, 2012)