Groundhogs are members of the rodent family, and are also called woodchucks, marmots, and ground squirrels. In the United States, they primarily live in the northeastern and central states, which is why those of you who live in the South may not be familiar with them.
These rodents live a feast-or-famine lifestyle and gorge themselves all summer to build up plentiful reserves of fat. After the first frost, they retreat to their underground burrows and snooze until spring, drawing their sustenance from body fat. While hibernating, the animal’s heart rate plunges, and its body temperature is not much warmer than the temperature inside its burrow.
They are the largest members of the squirrel family; their average weight is around 13 pounds and they can grow up to 26 inches in length. Though they are usually seen on the ground, they can climb trees and are capable swimmers.
They are considered pests throughout much of their habitat, because they are capable of destroying garden plots while voraciously feeding in the summer and fall.
The Legend of the Groundhog
It is said that when a groundhog comes out of his hibernation and makes his first appearance of the new year on February 2 (an arbitrary date), he can and will predict how the weather will be for the next six weeks. This legend is probably based on an old Scottish couplet:
“If Candlemas day be bright and clear,
there’ll be two winters in the year.”
American folklore takes this to mean that if, on February 2, the groundhog sees his shadow, he will scurry back into his hole and six more weeks of winter will ensue.
Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania Groundhog
Every February 2, the residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, gather at Gobbler’s Knob just outside of town to await the appearance of Phil, their groundhog in residence.
The resident’s claim that Phil’s weather prognostications are never wrong. The meetings were held in secret until 1966, with only his predictions made public. Since that time, Phil’s fearless forecasts have become a national event, broadcast widely on radio and television.
The groundhog comes out of his electrically heated burrow, looks for his shadow and utters his prediction to a Groundhog Club representative in “groundhogese.” The representative then translates the prediction for the general public.
Approximately 90 percent of the time, Phil sees his shadow and hastens back into his burrow, thereby forecasting six more weeks of winter.
Phil started making his predictions in 1887, and is now an American institution.
Groundhog Day and Candlemas
Whereas groundhog day has its origins in European weather lore, where a badger or a sacred bear acts as the prognosticator, the holiday also bears some similarities to the medieval Catholic holiday of Candlemas, and to the pagan festival of Imbolc, the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar. Imbolc is celebrated on February 1, and also involves weather prognostication.
According to Catholic tradition, Candlemas is to be celebrated exactly 40 days after Christmas day, or February 2. It is considered the last of the Christmas holy days, with the following days being associated with Easter from that point forward.
Since Candlemas occurs at a point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, many people have marked that day as winter’s halfway point while waiting for the spring.
Enjoy Groundhog Day and Candlemas
When February 2 gets here, light a candle and go out looking for a groundhog in one of your nearby snow covered fields. Perhaps you won’t need to go further than your garden to find a burrow. Trust me, if he sees his shadow, you are stuck with six more weeks of winter, friends – just grin and bear it!
And if you happen to live in the good old sunny South, just watch old Phil on television. Then pick up your pole and go fishing, that’s what I plan to do!