Posted by: justawriter | February 19, 2010

Far Afield – Groundhog day, more than just an oversized rat

Growing up on the Northern Plains, Groundhog Day always seemed to be the silliest holiday. After all, if you tell a North Dakotan in February there will only be six more weeks of winter, we would all be doing cartwheels and handstands. Shoot, 12 more weeks of winter would still qualify for an early spring around here.
Actually, the origin of the holiday is much more interesting than the sleeping habits of some oversized gopher. Groundhog Day is what is called a cross-quarter day. It falls halfway between the official first day of winter and the official first day of spring. Around these parts, we are aware more keenly than most that these dates have to do more with the sun and stars than the thermometer.
Winter starts on the shortest day of the year, and of course, the longest night. Slowly the sun starts creeping on its long journey back north. About this time of year the longer hours of sunshine really start to become noticeable, if only because we can get to and leave work with a few minutes of precious light to spare.
When our ancestors were completely at the mercy of the climate, keeping track of things like the progression of the seasons was more important than our relatively sheltered lives. By this time of the year, worried eyes would be cast at the quickly emptying granaries and root cellars. Knowing when the first green herbs of spring would be available could be the difference between survival and starvation.
All sorts of traditions and commemorations grew up around the cross quarter days. As with most pre-existing celebrations, the Church moved in to claim it by establishing the Feast of Candlemas, which marks the presentation of Jesus to the elders at the Temple. Groundhog Day seems to have been a legend from Germany that immigrated to the United States with the Pennsylvania Dutch. In the original version it was a badger that popped his head out of the hole to see spring had sprung. That’s one reason the hoopla around the day is centered in the Keystone State, especially around Punxsutawney. Punxsutawney Phil receives most of the media attention but there are nearly a dozen other notable groundhogs who make predictions on that day.
I don’t know if the Germans who settled western and central North Dakota carried that same tradition when they came to plow the prairies. If they did, I don’t think the tradition likely lasted more than a couple of stormy winters. But in the relatively balmy climate of the East Coast, the story was able to take root and become something of an industry. I’ve heard that Punxsutawney gets something like 40,000 visitors around this time of year waiting for the pronouncement of the rotund rodent.
Boosters of the farsighted furballs say they are much more accurate than the weather service. Killjoys who actually try to keep track of such things give them a score no better than random guessing. The scoring is complicated by the fact that most years the dozen or so groundhogs give different answers. In that case, do we go with a majority vote?
In any case, I think the best course is just to have fun with the day and not plan your fieldwork around Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications. Maybe watch a Bill Murray movie, over and over and over again.
I suppose I should share my own prediction for spring, since I have been dissing our bucktoothed friends so much. My father always said that an early Easter meant an early spring. This year Easter is on April 4, which I consider to be early. So, you heard it here first, 2010 will see an early spring. If we are shoveling snow in May, you have my permission to point at me and laugh.
Six weeks from Groundhog Day is St. Patrick’s Day, more or less. So I am also predicting that in six weeks there will be a mysterious appearance of green beer. I think that’s a prediction that will hold up better than whatever Phil and his furry brethren say.


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