Ground Hog Day Fact & Trivia

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May. Old English proverb

Today, February 2, is Groundhog Day. According to tradition, on this day, woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, emerge from their hibernation to venture outside, look around, and if they see their shadow, it means another six weeks of winter. On the other hand, if it’s overcast, it’s a sign of an early spring.

In the U.S., Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town in west central Pennsylvania, is generally considered Groundhog Day Central, and the setting of the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive the day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. While Punxsutawney gets the most publicity, many other communities from Georgia and Alabama, north to Ontario, and as far west as Aurora, Colorado and Dallas, Texas, have Groundhog Day observances of one kind or another.

While American observances of Groundhog Day have their origins from early Pennsylvania Dutch in Pennsylvania, the celebration has its origins in early European and Celtic folklore.

An early written reference to Groundhog Day comes from an 1841 diary entry of a Pennsylvania storekeeper, James Morris, who wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out as the weather is to be moderate.”

Candlemas Day has origins in the early Christian church, marking the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth in Bethlehem. In some churches, people bring beeswax candles to the church on February 2 to be blessed, as the holy man, Simeon, held the baby in his arms and proclaimed he would be a light to the gentiles.

In some Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, Candlemas Day is called Candelaria Day. In Portugal, the custom asserts, “If the Candelaria is smiling (sunshine), the winter is still to come, if the Candelaria is crying (raining), the winter is out.”

We don’t have woodchucks in western Montana, though we do have other marmots, the yellow-bellied marmot, often known as a rock chuck, and the hoary marmot, which is found in high alpine areas, above the tree line. Asking, on February 2, either of these animals what the weather is going to be in coming weeks is likely a waste of time, as they are going to be in full hibernation this time of year.

As to whether to believe the various Groundhog Day weather predictions, I’d suggest a grain of salt. In 2011, for example, Smith Lake Jake of Alabama, Octorara Orphie, Quarryville, Pennsylvania, and Mountain Maryland Murray, Cumberland, Maryland, all saw their shadow and predicted more winter weather. On the other hand Grady the Groundhog, Chimney Rock, North Carolina, Minnie the Groundhog, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and Punxsutawney Phil, himself, all predicted an early spring. I couldn’t make up those names, by the way.

Groundhog Day proponents claim the predictions are right 75 to 90 percent of the time. On the other hand, a Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years put the success rate at 37 percent. The National Climatic Data Center stated the overall prediction accuracy rate is around 39 percent.

In short, you’d be more accurate in predicting the weather by flipping a coin, instead of relying on woodchucks for this vital information. On the other hand, around here, an early spring as compared to six more weeks of winter is pretty much the same thing.

Finally, in this political year, I’ll mention that in Alaska, Groundhog Day is officially called Marmot Day, as there are few groundhogs in Alaska. The holiday change was passed by the Alaska legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Governor Sarah Palin. Gotta love her.

Groundhog Day Perspectives

A Montana bald eagle looking for lunch (see story below)

If Candlemas will be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again.
(Scottish poem)

Last summer, at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America at Rochester MN we had an outing at a Boy Scout camp. The camp is built on and around an old farm and while walking to another event I spotted a furry animal in a patch of grass. A woodchuck!

Woodchuck are also called groundhogs and today, February 2, is Groundhog Day. Early this morning in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania and a surprisingly large number of other communities, there were special observances of Groundhog Day. According to ancient traditions going back to pre-Christian Europe, the weather on February 2 predicts how much longer winter will hang around.

Romans believed the weather on the first few days of February would predict future weather, though they looked to hedgehogs as the predictor. Celtic people had a festival of Imbolc, held on February 1, with similar weather traditions.

The early Christian church established February 2 as a religious holiday observing two events of which one was the ritual of purification for Mary. The other was the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth.

Candlemas, literally, the Mass of Candles, observing the presentation of Jesus as a “Light to lighten the gentiles (one of many versions),” was a day when people traditionally brought a year’s supply of candles to church to be blessed.

Candlemas is midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and the early Christian church merged many older traditions into church holidays, so some of the Roman and Celtic beliefs about predicting weather continued.

In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch, or more accurately, German settlers imported the Candlemas tradition and gave groundhogs the role hedgehogs played in Europe.

The groundhog, or woodchuck, is a ground squirrel and part of a group of rodents called marmots. It is common in eastern and central states. Groundhogs typically weigh between 4 and 9 pounds, though in areas with few predators and rich feed are known to get over 30 pounds. Their main diet is grasses, or alfalfa when available, but they also eat bugs, grasshoppers or other small animals.

Groundhogs dig burrows for shelter, usually with multiple entrances. They may also dig a separate winter burrow for hibernation. In much of their range groundhogs hibernate from October until March or April, so in reality if Punxatawney Phil were a wild woodchuck he’d normally be sound asleep on February 2.

An intriguing fact about woodchucks is if they are injected with a special strain of Hepatitis B, they are at 100 percent risk for developing liver cancer, thus making them valuable for research on Hepatitis B and liver cancer.

We don’t have woodchucks here in Montana, though there are any number of Woodchuck Trails and similar places. Two other marmots call Montana home, however. The yellow-bellied marmot ranges across most of the Rocky Mountain states and is often called a rock chuck to distinguish it from its eastern cousin. The hoary marmot, which gets its name from its long, gray guard hairs, generally lives high in the mountains, above tree line.

Last summer, after getting home from Minnesota, I spotted a road-killed yellow-bellied marmot near the upper Big Hole River. A bald eagle was perching on a rocky cliff overlooking the highway, making some plaintive noises. I took the hint and picked up the marmot and threw it over the guardrail so the eagle could eat it safely (I know—what a mensch).

A week later, while touring Glacier National Park, we watched several hoary marmots moving around the Logan Pass Visitor Center, optimistically looking for edible goodies between the building and the deep snowdrifts.

That’s a personal record; seeing all three of these marmots in just a couple weeks. Still, I’ll bet none of them can predict Montana’s weather. In any event, if you wake them up on February 2 to ask, you might not like their answer.