06-17-2016

A Brief History Of Ground Hog Day

The holiday known as Ground Hog Day had its beginnings in the state of Pennsylvania and is rooted in German and Pennsylvanian customs. This holiday first occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in central and southeastern Pennsylvania. A groundhog is actually a large rodent, sometimes identified as a Marmota monax. This rodent is part of the Sciuridae family and it is an animal that is identified as a large species of ground squirrel. People have been turning to the groundhog for hundreds of years in order to determine what the weather will be. James Morris, a Pennsylvanian storekeeper, wrote of the groundhog in his diary; the early American reference to the celebration of Ground Hog Day was dated the fourth of February in 1841. Morris wrote of a Tuesday celebration that year on Candlemas and connected the tradition of watching the groundhog to see if it noticed its shadow. Morris explained in his diary entry that if the groundhog sees its shadow people could expect another six weeks of inclement weather. In contrast, if the groundhog does not see its shadow, more moderate weather could be expected. This diary reference can still be viewed today at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center located at the Franklin and Marshall College.

The first official Ground Hog Day was in 1886. The groundhog was named Punxsutawney Phil and the papers referred to the animal as an impressive weather prophet, prognosticator, sage, and seer. The tradition of naming the groundhog has continued until this day, with Phil being a common name for groundhogs each year.

There are a number of modern traditions and celebrations around the world resembling the practices conducted on Ground Hog Day. On February 2nd in Portugal, if the sun is shining on Candelaria Day, a longer winter is expected. Likewise, when it rains, it forecasts the coming of Spring. Additionally, on June 27th in Germany it is Siebenschlarfertag or Seven Sleepers Day. If it should rain on this particular day, then it will rain a lot for the remainder of the summer.

The accuracy of the groundhog’s weather forecasts is dubious. Some people assert that the groundhog is seventy-five to ninety-five percent accurate. Studies conducted in Canada however on thirteen different cities over the past three to four decades have revealed a far lower accuracy rate of thirty-seven percent. According to the National Climatic Data Center, the groundhog makes weather predictions that are thirty-nine percent correct.

History Of Ground Hog Day and Its Beginnings

The European lore that Ground Hog Day traditions are derived from involve a sacred bear or badger rather than a groundhog. Some schools of thought assert a link between the celebration of Ground Hog Day and the ancient pagan holiday known as Imbolc as well; the latter festival, sometimes identified as Candlemas, is a pagan holiday celebrated by the Gaulish peoples and the Celts. It was a noted turning point on the seasonal wheel of the year, commonly celebrated on February 1st and 2nd. This holiday is still celebrated by many pagans today, but Ground Hog Day has become a separate holiday celebration with different celebratory meaning. Ground Hog Day is also much like another holiday that occurs in July; Saint Swithun’s Day; the latter holiday is honored in England on July 15th each year. People honoring the traditions of Saint Swithun’s day watch for the weather on that day since it serves as a precursor of what the weather will be during the next forty days.

Some historians suggest that Ground Hog Day has very different origins than the ones described above and believe that the day evolved after the Julian calendar was changed to the Gregorian Calendar. When the Julian calendar was in use, the equinox dates drifted and Spring equinox would occur around the ides of March on the 15th or 16th; this placed the date of the equinox precisely six weeks after Candlemas. Later, when the Gregorian calendar was in effect, countries located in the west and positioned in the northernmost hemisphere celebrated the arrival of Spring nearly seven weeks following Imbolc or Candlemas; hence Spring began around March 20th or 21st each year. Since there was some resistance to the calendar changes, there may have been some initial confusion about when the official start of spring should commence. Some researchers suggest that ancient peoples used a natural arbiter like a hedgehog or groundhog in order to make the proper determination based upon the animal’s behaviors, and that the practice later became a yearly tradition.

History Of Ground Hog Day and Its Evolution

In the early 1720s, Delaware Native Americans had settled in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania; the location was positioned midway between the Susquehanna and Allegheny River. The Delaware natives honored the groundhog as sacred and considered them ancestors. The creation myth of the Delaware Natives included the notion that their ancestors started out their lives as animals within the Earth Mother and that hundreds of years later they came forth from the earth to hunt and to live their lives as men. A groundhog is a type of woodchuck and the term woodchuck is derived from the Native word “Wojak.” Also in the 1700s, German settlers came to Pennsylvania and carried with them the traditional understandings of Candlemas. Beliefs pertaining to the holiday asserted that if fair weather occurred on Candlemas then the latter half of the Wintry Season would be cold and stormy. Some old English and Scottish sayings also reference the weather conditions on Candlemas and how the weather would affect the remainder of the wintery season. If the weather was good on Candlemas , then more bad weather was expected in the future. But if the weather was cloudy and raining on Candlemas, the winter would come to a swift end.

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