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Ever wonder why we rely on these fuzzy rodents to predict the weather? Sunday marked the annual observance of Groundhog Day where we wait to see if the groundhog will see his shadow or not. If he does see it then we get to look forward to 6 more weeks of winter, if not we supposedly get an early spring. According to Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous groundhog, we are in for 6 more weeks of winter. Not surprising considering how harsh this winter has been for so many.
But why do we drag these poor hibernating ground squirrels out of their dens to see if they will see their own shadow? Who came up with this idea in the first place? I wonder this every February 2nd. So this year I decided to look it up.
First, I decided to look up groundhogs in general to see if there was anything special about them that would endow them with some mystical power to determine how much longer winter will last. It turns out that these large rodents do not have any characteristics that distinguish them from any other. According to National Geographic's website groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, land-beavers, or whistle-pigs (HA!), are a species of marmot and the largest members of the squirrel family. They eat voraciously through the summer and fall to build up fat stores so they can hibernate in the winter. Since they eat mainly plants, this makes them very unpopular with most gardeners. But my question remained as to how they became so popular in February.
It turns out that the tradition we now observe as Groundhog Day in North America derives from an ancient holiday that can be traced as far back as Roman times. This ancient celebration was known as Candlemas and marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. An Old English poem about Candlemas sums up the idea behind this ancient celebration and goes something like this:
"If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again."
In the area of Europe now known as Germany, farmers would observe the behavior of local badgers to determine when to plant their crops (www.timeanddate.com). If the badgers stirred from their dens earlier in the season near Candlemas then it was believed there would be an early spring. If the badger did not stir from its den then winter would last at least six more weeks into mid-March. These predictions made on badgers were made when animalism and nature worship was still prevalent in many societies. What is so interesting to me though, is the fact that these practices continued well into the 18th and 19th centuries when German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania carried these traditions with them to the New World. When badgers were found to be in short supply these early colonists decided the groundhog would be a good substitute. Apparently, they thought groundhogs seemed like calm and practical creatures who would make good weather predictors.
I suppose the fact that groundhogs are cute and cuddly looking also helped, though I couldn't find any statistics to back this up. With all of this information you may wonder how accurate groundhogs are at predicting how much longer winter will last. According to Groundhog Day organizers they have an accuracy of 75-90%. Before you get too excited though, the StormFax Weather Almanac disputes this claim and states that since 1887, around the time of the earliest recorded U.S. Groundhog Day celebration, their accuracy has only been about 39%. I'll let you draw your own conclusions, but personally I'm going to go with the groundhogs who didn't see their shadows this year, like Punxsutawney Phil.
Another well-known groundhog in the U.S. who saw his shadow this year was Staten Island Chuck (AKA Charles G. Hogg) in New York predicting six more weeks of winter. But, in Ohio, Buckeye Chuck did not see his shadow and neither did General Beauregard Lee in Atlanta, GA. Both of whom are predicting early springs. Again, I'll let you decide who you want to believe. At least here the animal we choose to wake up to see if it'll see its shadow or not is a herbivore. In Serbia a similar tradition involves bears. YIKES!