Groundhog Day might seem frivolous—people gathering in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to see Punxsutawney Phil lumber out of his burrow and thus determining the weather for the coming year. But Groundhog Day is one of a number of holidays—which include the Celtic Imbolc and the Christian Candlemas—that are celebrated at this moment, halfway between midwinter (Yule) and the height of spring (Easter, Spring Equinox), when the first signs of spring are evident, whether those are the thaw, the emergence of snowdrops, or the head of a groundhog poking out of a burrow.
Many animals are emerging from hibernation as the hours of sunlight increase. The bear is a true hibernator; it sleeps through the winter with a slower heart rate and a lower body temperature, without eating or urinating or defecating. Many other mammals that seem to hibernate, like raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, chipmunks, hamsters, and hedgehogs, actually go into dormancy, rather than true hibernation, and wake up occasionally to move around and eat.
In England, the animal that is said to come out of dormancy on this day is the badger. Since there are no badgers in America, this role was assigned to the groundhog (or woodchuck).
If the groundhog comes out of his hole and sees his shadow on February 2, he will go back in and winter will continue. But if the day is cloudy and the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, then winter will soon be over.
In Germany, they say that the shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than the sun.
The English have many rhymes that prognosticate about future weather based on the weather on Candlemas Day:
If Candlemas Day bring snow and rain
Winter is gone and won’t come again
If Candlemas Day be clear and bright
Winter will have another flight.
The ancient Armenians used the wind to predict the weather for the coming year by watching the smoke drifting up from the bonfires lit in honor of Mihr. The Scots also observed the wind on Candlemas as recorded in this rhyme:
If this night’s wind blow south
It betokeneth warmth and growth;
If west, much milk and fish in the sea;
If north, much cold and snow there will be;
If east, the trees will bear much fruit;
If north-east, flee it, man, woman and brute.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”