GROUNDHOGS AND PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL
Don’t be surprised when the neighborhood groundhogs (doesn’t every neighborhood have one, two, three or four?)—thought long gone in the late fall, their burrows far too close to the house, backfilled—suddenly awake, emerge and begin foraging for fuel.
Yes, all the signs are here—it will be an early spring.#
However, the official word on whether it will be an early spring will not be made by the observations of Colin McNickle, journalist, but by Punxsutawney Phil. On Groundhog Day.
(To view illustration click on:
The sixth century. That’s how far back the roots of the Groundhog Day celebration extend.
Groundhog Day is associated with Christianity’s Candlemas Day, the day that candles used throughout the year are blessed. It is the mid-point of winter, the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
Groundhog Day as a modern event was inspired by an old Scottish couplet:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear
There’ll be two winters in the year.**
Later, the Germans started trying to predict how much more winter they could expect based on the hibernation patterns of bears in February. In the 1700s, when the Germans settled in the United States, they switched from bears to groundhogs, for some unknown reason* After all, groundhogs have no interest in how long winter lasts, nor are they any interest in their shadows. Basically, they come out of hibernation for food (by February, hibernating groundhogs have lost up to half their body weight) and sex. **
A clue might be found in the Delaware Indian heritage. In 1723 they settled in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers, and ninety miles north of Pittsburgh.
According to the Delaware Indian original creation beliefs, their forebears began life as animals in “Mother Earth” and emerged centuries later to hunt and live as men. The Delawares considered groundhogs honorable ancestors.***
The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College:
February 4, 1841 – from Morgantown, Berks County (Pennsylvania) storekeeper James Morris’ diary…“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.”***
Woodchuck and groundhog are common terms for the same animal.** The name woodchuck comes from the Indian legend of “Wojak, the groundhog” considered by them to be their ancestral grandfather.*** This rodent, Marmota monax, a member of the squirrel family, is a.k.a. a “whistle-pigs,” because, when they are nervous they emit a high-pitched squeal.**
The groundhog, with all the names it has (woodchuck, Wojak, Marmota monax, squirrel, whistle-pig, rodent), could have many nick-names. I invite you to provide one, typing it into the comment box following the ADDITIONAL READING list.
But for now, I wish you a satisfying Groundhog Day. If you are a winter sports nut, and desire more winter, hope that Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow and provides you with more fun time. But for those persons who yearn for spring, hope for a cloudy day so that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow, predicting an early spring.
Either way, remember: Punxsutawney Phil has been accurate in his predictions only 30% of the time.
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#Peeking spring. Saturday Essay by Colin McNickle. Tribune-Review, Greensburg PA. Jan. 23, 2010. A7
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