Saturday, February 2, 2013

In the Shadow of the Groundhog

How could he not see his shadow??
It's Groundhog Day again today, or, as I like to call it, "Rodents Suck at Math Day". Or maybe it's not their fault: after all, they didn't choose the date of the "holiday". February 2nd is "Candlemas", supposedly midway between the start of winter and the start of spring, but somewhere along the way our calendars changed just enough that it's actually not the midway point any more, if it ever was. "Candlemas", by the way, is yet another Christian holiday that was co-opted from the pagans (who called it Imbolc); another story in their long tradition of demonizing "witchcraft" while simultaneously "purifying" the important days of Celts and Pagans everywhere. That, of course, is a story for another time: my main point here is Candlemas or Imbolc or however you like to refer to it comes forty-two to forty-three days from the beginning of winter but forty-six to forty-seven days before the beginning of spring. Remember those numbers; I'll return to them later.

The link between Candlemas and meteorological prognostication, though, is not as well-defined. Perhaps it was inspired by an old Scottish proverb:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear
There'll be two winters in the year.

Groundhog Day, 1961
links to:
Perhaps it evolved from German folklore; this explanation would make a lot of sense considering the demographic makeup of the area around Punxsutawney, PA. According to the online magazine/blog, Attuned to Antiques:
"The first written reference indicating the groundhog’s role in the day can be found in this diary entry dated February 4, 1841, by James Morris, a Pennsylvania storekeeper:

'Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.'"

Wiarton Willie
But either way, no matter whether you live in the USA or Canada—home to the coattail-riding "Wiarton Willie", an albino groundhog (or, more correctly, a succession of them)—you've likely had it drilled into you that "the shadow's the thing" when it comes to our prognostica rodentiae. "If the groundhog sees his shadow," we've been told ever since we were quite wee, "it means six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, it's an early spring." And I went along with this, like everyone else, until I was a bit older and I realized that something about the math didn't quite "add up" for me. So I took a closer look and have been bothered by the redundancy of the two supposed opposing outcomes ever since.

Yes, it is!
Do you remember how long I said it was between February 2nd and the first day of spring (March 20th)? Forty-six days. But six weeks is only forty-two days, meaning "six more weeks of winter" is also an "early spring" (which is pretty freaking vague for a "soothsayer" in the first place, am I right?), meaning it really doesn't matter a tinker's cuss if Phil or Willie or whomever even comes out of their tiny holes in the first place: spring will be arriving early this year. And next year. And every year we continue to celebrate the lives of these cute but not particularly brilliant little creatures. From today, spring is actually more than six weeks away no matter whether you are a Pagan, Wiccan or Scientologist. To be told it's coming sooner and then to be disappointed in that answer is... well, that's a pretty good indication that ours is a society of silver-lining deniers. Not to mention we're all certifiably insane for believing in the predictive powers of a groundhog in the first place. Among other things.

And if you think the math in this post was geeky, wait until you read my piece on the death of the penny. You have been warned.


  1. Interesting history - but I still wonder - why a groundhog? Perhaps the answer lies in the Imbolc link you provided. Off to check!

    1. Maybe the groundhog is smarter than I gave it credit for. Maybe it learned to predict the future so we wouldn't eat it! :)


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