Groundhog Day has come and gone, unlike the movie where it keeps happening over and over again. This North American holiday is perhaps one of the most unusual. It is tempting to jokingly mock Americans for this illogical yet adorable and somewhat controversial holiday. But it turns out that they are not the only ones! By the way, I’m from two countries with the most ridiculous superstitions so I enjoy bizarre holidays more than I should.
Groundhog Day: What Is It?
For all the non-Americans reading this, Groundhog Day takes place on February 2nd every year. Basically, a groundhog in Pennsylvania makes a prediction about whether winter will persist for six more weeks or if spring will come soon. No, it does NOT sound real, but I promise it is.
What Even Is a Groundhog?
This is the most common question that people ask when they hear about the holiday. The groundhog is also known as a woodchuck and it is a rodent belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. The groundhog is a lowland creature of North America. In my opinion, the ‘how much wood can a woodchuck chuck’ tongue twister should become the theme song for Groundhog Day.
How Did It Start?
The culprits of this weird celebration are the Pennsylvania Dutch. They are sometimes also called the Pennsylvania Germans or Pennsylvania Deutsch and they are descendants of early German immigrants to Pennsylvania. They are made up of a range of religious groups including Amish, Mennonite-Lutheran, German Reformed, Moravian, and others.
According to their superstition, if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and winter will persist for six more weeks. But if it does not see its shadow because of cloudiness, spring will arrive early.
This weather lore was brought from German-speaking areas where the badger is the forecasting animal. There are those who believe that this holiday is an enhanced version of Candlemas or Imbolc beliefs. But we’ll get to Germany in a minute…
Punxsutawney Phil: THE Groundhog
You may have noticed that I said that a groundhog makes the prediction, and his name is Punxsutawney Phil. Phil is a semi-mythical groundhog who has been the star of the Groundhog Day ceremony held at Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania for decades. The reason he considered semi-mythical is because groundhogs live two or three years on average and up to 14 in captivity.
So obviously, there have been many groundhogs who pose as Phil throughout the years. Although there’s always the chance of reincarnation so maybe it IS actually the same groundhog… I’ll let you ponder this in your own time.
Groundhog Day Controversy
Like any holiday, it isn’t possible not to have some controversies. One big one is the treatment of Phil or the other groundhogs. Many cities in the United States and Canada have their own groundhog day ceremonies. Not all ceremonies go as planned…
I won’t get too much into it but Charlotte, an unfortunate New York groundhog who died after being dropped by Bill de Blasio. There have also been groundhogs who bit mayors, since they are wild animals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like too much thought is put into training people to properly handle groundhogs in general. However, I don’t doubt that there are many groundhog handlers who love their groundhogs and treat them like the winter-predicting royalty that they are.
Groundhog Day in Other Countries?
So since the Germans are technically to blame, we already know that they have a similar holiday. Many countries have their own superstitions regarding spring. Not all of these are as popular as Groundhog Day is in North America. However, that only happened because of the movie. So the more people hear about these superstitions, the more they’ll be celebrated!
German Rain Squirrels – Siebenschläfertag
Siebenschläfertag means “Seven Sleepers Day” in Germany. Do not confuse it with Siebenschläfer which means “dormouse.” Despite what the name suggests, the tradition has nothing to with rodents at all! Basically, the belief is that if it rains on June 27th, then the rest of summer will have lots of rain.
UK’s Pessimistic ‘When It Rains It Pours’ Day
There is actually a similar tradition in the UK called St. Swithun’s Day. Except they believe that if it rains on Thursday, July 15 then it will rain for the next 40 days and night. You may think that this is a tad extreme, but it’s the UK… it would be more impressive for there NOT to be rain for 40 days and nights!
Fun fact: I have spent a total of 10 days in the UK split up among four or so trips and the weather was perfect. Clearly, I am the opposite of a German rain mouse… but alas, my visits have not yet made the tradition handbook.
Alaska’s ‘It’s a Rodent, Whatever’ Day
Alaska is not its own country but rather one of the two US States that isn’t attached to the rest. Because it is so far away and having a different habitat, they are low on groundhogs. I already mentioned that groundhogs are in the marmot family. Which is why in Alaska, Groundhog Day is Marmot Day. That way you can just go outside and find whatever rodent happens to be coming out of hibernation and blame it for undesirable weather.
Global Spring Predictions
Here’s some other fun ones, from Europe is Not Dead. Weird name but great website!
- In Norway, whistling towards the sun will cause rain all year.
- When rowan trees carry lots of berries, there will be little snow in the winter, because the tree should only have to carry one heavy burden.
- They also believe that if there’s ice on the lakes on May Day, Spring will be late. Better blame ice than an innocent groundhog.
- Moving to a new house on a rainy day brings luck.
- If the first calf born in winter is white, it will be a tough winter.
- Knitting on the doorstep is forbidden in late winter as it will lengthen the winter!
- If sheep gnash their teeth during the autumn round-up, winter will be harsh. In fact, any sheep teeth gnashing predicts bad weather.
- A slightly sexist yet interesting tradition is to burn a stray effigy dressed in female clothes. Morena, as she is known, symbolizes the pre-Christian wish to get rid of risks stemming from the winter and connected with this time of the year.
Summary: Groundhog Day
What can I say, humans from all over the world seem to have some really weird superstitions. Some, like the berries on a tree are based on science and logic. Others, like knitting on a doorstep, make a lot less sense. On a scale of craziness, groundhog day is not so ridiculous after all. Studying weather patterns and groundhogs could have in fact given us a great way to predict weather. Just don’t drop the innocent groundhogs on the ground or I will personally come bite you!