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Groundhog Day

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Groundhog Day

The groundhog awakes from hibernation around the time of Imbolc, and emerges from his burrow.

Image © Getty Images

Groundhog Day is observed every year in North America on February 2 -- the same day that Imbolc, or Candlemas, happens to fall. Despite the seemingly modern aspects of this tradition -- in which a plump, confused-looking rodent is hoisted up in front of a throng of newscasters at the crack of dawn -- there's actually a long and interesting history behind the occasion.

The Greeks believed that an animal's soul was contained in its shadow. Hibernation was a time of spiritual renewal and purification -- an animal that saw its shadow in the spring needed to go back to bed for a while until its misdeeds were expunged.

In England, there's an old folk tradition that if the weather is fine and clear on Candlemas, then cold and stormy weather will reign for the remaining weeks of winter. On the other hand, bad weather at the beginning of February is a harbinger of a milder winter, and an early thaw. There's a poem that says:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
winter has another flight.
When Candlemas brings cloud and rain,
winter shall not come again.

In the Carmina Gadelica, folklorist Alexander Carmichael points out that there's actually a poem in honor of an animal emerging from its burrow to predict spring-like weather on "the brown day of Bride". However, it's not the cute, cuddly groundhog we're used to seeing in the United States. In fact, it's the decidedly uncuddly serpent.

The serpent will come from the hole
on the brown day of Bride (Brighid)
though there may be three feet of snow
on the surface of the ground.

Scotland's Highlanders had a tradition of pounding the ground with a stick until the serpent emerged. The snake's behavior gave them a good idea of how much frost was left in the season.

In Europe, rural dwellers had a similar tradition. They used an animal called a dachs, which is a bit like the badger. When settlers came to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, they renewed the custom with a more local animal -- the groundhog. Each year, Punxatawney Phil is removed from his den by his keepers, at which point he whispers the forecast to a top-hatted member of the official Groundhog Club.

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