Jimmy Westlake: The roots of Groundhog Day
January 30, 2012
Groundhog Day is coming up this week. The origin of this unusual holiday can be traced back hundreds of years, 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. You're probably more familiar with the four quarter days, the two solstices and the two equinoxes. In modern times, these quarter days mark the beginnings of our seasons. The four cross-quarter days 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 should, as they also mark our holidays of Groundhog Day, May Day, Lammas Day and All Hallows' Eve (Halloween).
OK, maybe you've never heard of Lammas Day, but the others should be familiar. Lammas Day, on Aug. 1, was considered the first day of the new harvest each year and families would bring to church a loaf of bread made from the new harvest for blessing. The name might derive from the words "loaf mass."
After the longest night of the year on December's winter solstice, the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer as we move toward spring. Long ago, the winter solstice was considered to be mid-winter day, not the first day of winter, and Candlemas on Feb. 2 was considered the first day of spring. An old English poem by an unknown author provides a connection between Candlemas and our Groundhog Day:
"As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again."
There are dozens of celebrations across the country every Groundhog Day, but none is larger than the one thrown in Punxsutawney, Penn. The legend says 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 have to 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. The flip of a coin would be much more precise, but certainly not as much fun. Happy Groundhog Day!
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.