February 2nd is Groundhog Day, a day that's a mystery to people outside North America. Even in the USA and Canada, it's more a bit of fun than a holiday. Yet however superficial it is now, it's the offshoot of traditions that began in Europe thousands of years ago.
There are various groundhogs in the USA and Canada that supposedly predict the weather, but the most famous is Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. On February 2nd he comes out of hibernation. If he sees his shadow that means six more weeks of winter. But if it's cloudy, no shadow, which means that things are warming up. It's truly spring.
Phil has been on the job since 1887 when a newspaperman got interested in the local groundhog folklore and turned it into a story. In fact, he turned it into an annual story. Obviously a succession of animals has been involved since then, but overall they don't have a stellar record. The predictions have been right less than forty percent of the time.
Sacred animals divine the weather
The groundhog lore in Pennsylvania was an adaptation of customs that came with German settlers in the early 19th century. There had been a long tradition in Germany of weather divination using hibernating animals including bears, badgers and hedgehogs. Pennsylvania lacked any of these, but groundhogs have a similar hibernation pattern.
The groundhogs' lack of divination success isn't surprising. Meteorologically, December, January and February are the winter months. Whatever you see on the first of February, there's a good chance of another six weeks of wintry weather.
The tradition may have developed independently in Germany, but some think that the Romans brought it from Celtic Britain where it was part of the celebrations of Imbolc (pronounced IM-olk).
We need to realize that Groundhog Day is rooted in the seasons, and they exist due to the 23.5° tilt of Earth's axis. As we orbit the Sun during the year, the northern and southern hemispheres each have a turn at being tilted towards the Sun (summer) and tilted away from it (winter).
The Sun is highest in the sky at the summer solstice which is in June in the northern hemisphere. Then it gradually gets lower in the sky, and the days get shorter. About a quarter of the way around the Sun, we have an equinox when day and night are approximately equal. In December, the shortest day is the winter solstice. (In the southern hemisphere, it's the opposite.) The equinoxes are in March and September.
Winter was a harsh time. The cold, the hard ground, and the meager sunlight meant few things grew and game was scarce. Survival would depend on how well people had preserved and stored food – and on luck. If it was a long winter, many would not survive. After the dark days the coming of spring was a central concern.
When does spring begin?
Astronomically, the seasons begin on the solstices and the equinoxes, and that's the custom in many countries. Holidays relating to these days are still celebrated, though most aren't as important as they once were.
However there is another tradition – the Celtic one – in which the turning points of the year were on what is known as the cross-quarter days, the days midway between a solstice and an equinox.
By February days are noticeably lengthening after the winter solstice. Flowers such as snowdrops (also called candlemas bells) appear and lambing begins. The traditional date for Imbolc is February 1st. For the Celts it was the start of the light half of the year which ended at Samhain (pronounced: SAW-in) at the end of October.
Groundhog Day and Halloween are remnants of Imbolc and Samhain, but their history didn't start with the Celts. In Ireland there are mounds that are 5000 years old which are aligned to the sunrise at Imbolc and Samhain. An inner chamber of the Mound of the Hostages at Tara is illuminated at these times. (In the photo a modern gate casts its shadow on the ancient painting.)
Imbolc is about fire and light, a celebration of the growing strength of the life-giving Sun. The Sun goddess had aged into a hag during the dark months, but becomes a maiden again in the renewal of spring. She went under different names in different places, but one that survived was Brigid. Brigid was the goddess of the Sun, fire, health, hearth and inspiration. Fire, light, holy wells and animal divination were part of Imbolc.
St Brigid's Day and Candlemas
Brigid is the only Celtic goddess also to be a Christian Saint. St Brigid's feast day is on February 1st in Ireland. The St Brigid's cross, traditionally woven from reeds, is a popular symbol of Ireland.
St. Brigid's day is followed by Candlemas on February 2nd. This is a Christian holy day observed in many countries. It represents the day on which Mary, following Jewish custom of the time, underwent a purification ceremony, and that Jesus was first presented at the temple. This occurred forty days after the birth of a son. But Candlemas is also a festival of light, taking its name from the blessing of the candles for use in the church and for the good fortune of the faithful at home.
Traditionally in Scotland one of the four legal quarter days of the year was on Candlemas. The name still holds, but the date is no longer February 2nd.
There is also an old English rhyme which, although it doesn't involve animals, says
Come, winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.