Jimmy Westlake: A rodent’s input on a seasonal date

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Groundhog Day is coming up this week, marking the midpoint of winter. The tradition of this unusual holiday can be traced back many centuries, though not in the same form that we celebrate it today.

Feb. 2 is one of four important seasonal dates of the year called “cross-quarter days.” They mark the midpoints of the four seasons.

If you think of the seasonal cycle as a circle, these eight days form the eight spokes on the “wheel” of the year. The cross-quarter days are Feb. 2, May 1, Aug. 1 and Oct. 31. Do any of these dates ring a bell? They also mark our holidays of Groundhog Day, May Day, Lammas Day and Halloween.

After the longest night of the year on December’s winter solstice, the days grow longer as we move toward spring. In times past, the winter solstice was considered to be the middle of winter, not the beginning of winter, and the Roman Catholic feast day of Candlemas, on Feb. 2, was considered the first day of spring.

There are dozens of celebrations around the country every Groundhog Day, but none is larger than the one thrown in Punxsutawney, Pa. The legend said that if, on Feb. 2, the famous rodent Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his hole on Gobbler’s Knob and sees his shadow, he goes back in his hole with his mate, Punxsutawney Phyllis, and we must endure six more weeks of winter. If instead it is cloudy and Phil sees no shadow, then winter is banished and we have an early spring.

Should we be giving a mere rodent so much power? According to the StormFax Weather Almanac, Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions have been accurate only 39 percent of the time since 1887. Even the flip of a coin would be right 50 percent of the time, but certainly not as much fun.

Happy Groundhog Day!

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out his astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.

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