Feb. 2 was a sad day for lovers of folklore and superstition. Yes, Canada’s beloved groundhog, Fred la Marmotte, was found dead before he could predict the beginning of spring on Groundhog Day. Many groundhogs have come before Fred, and I’m sure many will follow in his tracks, but it was a surprise, to say the least. Event organizers in Quebec really had to scramble to save the day, as it appears Fred went to groundhog heaven sometime in December!
Groundhog Day is a tradition steeped in Pennsylvania Dutch superstition dating back hundreds of years. It was originally called Candlemas when Christian clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. Germans then expanded on this tradition by selecting a hedgehog as a means of predicting the weather. German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, switching from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which are more common in the area. Finally, in 1887, a newspaper editor who was part of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, announced that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. And you know the rest.
While there is no scientific proof that a groundhog can predict the end of winter (six weeks of winter or spring is just around the corner work out to about the same length of time here in Saskatchewan), it is a ritual that creates excitement and brings comfort at an otherwise bleak and cold time of the year. Fred wasn’t alone in his annual quest for stardom. Perhaps even more famous than Fred is Ontario’s Wiarton Willie. A bit of a rebel, he has predicted an early spring. The infamous Punxsutawney Phil of Philadelphia (surely not the same one from 1887) saw his own shadow and therefore predicted six more weeks of winter. I hear there is now a lobster, Lucy the Lobster, doing some weather predictions out of Nova Scotia. Lucy agrees with Phil. Six more weeks of winter remain. Huh. Here in Saskatchewan, we don’t need a groundhog to tell us that there will be six more weeks of winter. That would take us to around mid-March, which is usually the time when the snow starts to melt.
The passing of Fred is big news. Pomp and pageantry led up to the announcement, as they do for any Groundhog Day ceremony. Face it. Groundhog Day brings people together. It provides food for thought at the water cooler. Families make bets, argue the accountability of a groundhog and cry frozen tears if the wrong verdict is offered up. There must be more to this celebration than just an unyielding weather prediction. I think it is more the ritualistic nature of the task. It is something to get excited about, although that excitement is usually short-lived when the news points to six more weeks of winter.
That’s not to say I have never partaken in Groundhog Day tomfoolery. I’ve never lost (or won) money on a groundhog day bet, but I have placed wagers on other things. You know, coffee, lunch, etc. And, I may or may not have been involved in a couple of practical jokes. I remember one year, the newspaper I worked for in Quesnel, B.C., “borrowed” a taxidermist’s groundhog to set up a front page photo. Said groundhog went missing, only to show up in a massive planter that divided the newsroom from the production room. I can still hear the shrieks! Oh my!
Phil and his descendants are also responsible for an American classic. How many times have you seen the 1993 film Groundhog Day? On the off chance you don’t know what I’m talking about, Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a TV weatherman who gets caught in a time loop while covering an annual Groundhog Day event. Watch it!
This year, my family and I did not celebrate Groundhog Day. We chose to celebrate Imbolc, one of the most important pagan celebrations because it marks the return of light after a dark winter. No, we aren’t pagans, but we are open to learning about and celebrating the traditions of other cultures. Some of us are more open than others, ha ha ha. Those Pagans really enjoyed their mulled wine, and I can relate to that!
Imbolc, originally an ancient festival (think 10th century ancient) in honour of Brigid, goddess of poetry, crafts, and prophecy, takes place between sunset Feb. 1 and sunset Feb. 2. It is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Apparently, Brigid was quite feisty and said to have been born with a flame growing out of her head, and she drank the milk of a mythical cow from the afterlife. She eventually became Saint Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patron saints. St. Brigid’s Day is Ireland’s first national holiday in honour of a woman.
Nowadays, Brigid and Imbolc are celebrated by many cultures and faiths and have a place on the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. Imbolc has a lot going for it. It marks the start of noticeably longer days. When I stumble out of bed at 8 a.m. to let the dogs out, it is fairly light outside. And as I sit here now, at 6 p.m., it is still light out. What a treat! It sure beats waking up to darkness. It is also the time to dust off the thoughts, insights, and ideas that brewed over the winter and start to bring them to life. The timing of Imbolc lets us know that there is movement under the frozen ground. Some plants are starting to make their journey upwards and will eventually pop through and strain to see that blue sky. It doesn’t happen overnight, right? It takes time.
I understand that it is easy to get caught up in our own little world. It is easy to forget that people around the world have their own celebrations, their own rituals, and their own beliefs. Imbolc isn’t the only celebration taking place in February. There are many others, and if you’d like to learn more, check out this website.
So why is it that some people scoff at the idea of celebrating a festival that stands for new beginnings and the halfway point of winter yet get excited over a groundhog emerging briefly from its warm and cozy lair to sniff at the air? Your guess is as good as mine, but I think it’s all about respect and what you are familiar with. Either way you look at it, winter is still at least six weeks away, no matter what the late Fred, Phil, or Lucy have to say about it. Shadow or no shadow. So instead of grumbling about the cold and how much longer we must endure winter, let’s celebrate Imbolc and the fact that we are halfway there!
Interesting Reads & Things
Groundhog Day 1993 — OPENING TITLE SEQUENCE – Bing video
Imbolc: Blessings, Rituals & Meaning – HISTORY – HISTORY
Famous Groundhogs Besides Punxsutawney Phil | Reader’s Digest (rd.com)
Groundhog Day: A Short History of Notable Canadian Groundhogs (and a Prognosticating Lobster) – Everything Zoomer
One thought on “Groundhog or Celtic Goddess?”
Here in southeast Pennsylvania we’ve had zero snow so far this winter, which is astounding. But I’m not complaining!