Winter is not my favorite season. It’s cold and gray and drab, most of the time. I find myself going through exercises to help it pass faster, like counting the days to the winter solstice and then once passed, reminding myself almost daily the days are getting longer. An event this week is the epitome of this practice — even has a day named after it — Groundhog Day.
If you wonder who came up with relying on a groundhog to tell them when spring is going to be here, you can thank early German settlers in Pennsylvania. They brought with them Candlemas Day and the Christian tradition of blessing candles. Germans have been credited with incorporating a hedgehog into this centuries-old European celebration. But while hedgehogs were common in Europe, the groundhog had to stand in for those celebrating the tradition in the New World.
Thus are the beginnings of our American Groundhog Day, and the legend himself, Punxsutawney Phil.
There are few movies for which I will stop while channel surfing on a winter weekend afternoon. “Groundhog Day” is one of them. It captures the time-locked feel of winter and the sense of drudgery many of us can relate to right now. It also illustrates the lesson that winter can have a certain beauty as well as the knowledge that it will soon end.
Featured in the movie, the Punxsutawney groundhog has a pretty sweet public relations gig. Almost everyone is watching to see whether Phil sees his shadow or not. Who could begrudge a groundhog for getting it wrong, anyway? I don’t recall too many occasions when he didn’t see his shadow. Of course, to see the shadow indicating more winter is the safe bet. He just wants to go back to sleep until it warms up. I think he knows winter is usually far from over.
According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website, American farmers in the 19th century had a different take on February 2nd. Knowing the end of winter was nowhere near, if a farmer didn’t have half of his hay stores remaining by this date, his livestock would likely find lean rations before spring vegetation arrived. Farmers are a prudent lot, not leaving anything to chance on the opinion of a groundhog.
Don’t get me wrong; traditions can be fun. But, if I’m going to observe one that is effectively supposed to tell me when winter will be over, there better be some validity to the celebrations. I’ll be watching, of course — anything to get me through the next few weeks of winter, however many or few there might be — likely scowling at the prediction of six more weeks while hoping he’s wrong.