Thursday, February 1, 2018

Groundhog Day

Who could ever be afraid of their own shadow? That might seem rather silly, but in fact, that is what's behind the concept of Groundhog Day. It is a long-held tradition - and we at J and L love traditions - that when a groundhog comes out its burrow, if it sees its own shadow, it will turn and run back to the comfort of its dirt abode.

If the little marmot monax (scientific name) sees its shadow and retreats, that means there will be another six weeks of winter left on the calendar. If the little critter does not see its shadow, then there will be an early spring. Of course, in the lovely state of California, we always hope that there is a big old shadow terrifying the groundhog – we are tired of droughts.

Uh, Winter or Spring - I'm not quite sure
In actuality, the male groundhog emerges in late winter, hoping for the right conditions to begin to search of a mate. If the weather isn't right for groundhog love, back to sleep he retreats. That reality wasn’t quite exciting for superstitious humans curious about how much more of the cold winter weather they had to endure. So those creative souls imagined that the groundhog's search for a soul mate, might actually be the work of a furry meteorologist.

Perhaps this is the reason that our little friend the groundhog seems to be having an identity crisis. How would any mammal feel when his human neighbors change him from Romeo to Weatherman. Then, to make matters worse, they call him by no less than twelve names: groundhog, chuck, woodchuck, groundpig (that sounds a little offensive), whistlepig, whistler, thickwood badger, Canada marmot, marmot, monax, moonack, weenusk, and the red monk.

Just call me Sam
These ground squirrels typically measure up to 26 inches and weigh in around 31 pounds, making them a very large marmot in anyone’s mind. They are adapted for quickly digging in the territory they roam, generally in the northeastern and central regions of the United States and into Canada as far as Alaska. Some of these cute little hairy diggers can be found as far south as Georgia.

They do get around and are so famous, that they've inspired a neat little tongue-twister:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

Try saying that three times in a row. 

"How much, uh, chuck would upchuck - ah forget about-it"
These sharp-toed creatures hibernate in the late fall and then emerge from their dens sometime in February or early March, depending on the temperature. If it's too cold, then its back to beddy-bye. But if it's a bit warmer, then it's a long stretch, and Mr. Groundhog is back among the living and looking for love. 

So, where does this imaginative interpretation of Groundhog Day come from?

It started a long long time ago in a land far, far away. Candlemas is an ancient tradition when European priests would hand out blessed candles for the winter season. The Holy Day is celebrated as the ‘Presentation of Jesus at the Temple’ and the date of February the 2nd was chosen as the day for passing out those candles to those in need of them in the community during the cold and dark winter nights.

Jesus being presented at the temple
 So, the people would awaken on the 2nd day of February and look to the heavens for sign. A telling, so to speak, if the dark days of winter were almost over.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

That tradition was later changed by the Germans, who used hedgehogs instead of candles to seek an answer to their question of whether winter was going to be longer or not. Now, the hedgehogs were not used as candles, (even in those by-gone days that wouldn't have gone over too well,) but as the harbinger of longer colder days or the promise of a warm and early spring.

Groundhog presenting a candle - weird
When German settlers immigrated to the United States, they exchanged the hedgehog for the groundhog for two simple reasons: hedgehogs were hard to find, and the groundhogs were plentiful in the Keystone state of Pennsylvania, where they primarily settled.

Where are those darn hedgehogs - maybe just a hog - no, not right
The tradition carried on for decades and then finally in 1887, a newspaper editor from the melodious sounding town of Punxsutawney announced that a groundhog by the name of Phil was the only true weather-forecasting groundhog in the United States.

Not sure how many ‘fake’ weather-forecasting groundhogs there were at the time, but Phil hit the big time, and has since made it into the history books. Since these little furry creatures only live about six to eight years, there have been plenty of Phil Juniors since then.

Since then, other towns have tried to break into the groundhog meteorologist gig by having their own prognosticating varmint, from Birmingham Bill to Staten Island Chuck, and there is even a Shumbenacadie Sam in Canada.

But it’s the one and only Punxsutawney Phil people recognize nationwide. Thousands of people from around the world trek their way to Punxsutawney on Candlemas Day to see if Phil will frolic in the sun or turn around and head for his burrow, marking another six weeks of winter to endure.

Phil and his fans - not sure who the man with the hat is though

The one and only true home for Punxsutawney Phil
It is also this Punxsutawney Phil who was immortalized in the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a reporter who awakes every morning to relive the previous day, which of course happens to be, February 2 - Groundhog Day.

A block buster movie based on Phil - and oh yeah, Bill Murray
So, Phil – shadow or not, will remain the truest form of a weather forecaster for many people around the world.

We wouldn’t have it any other way. Forget satellite images of the weather when we have a four footed celebrity willing to risk his furry rear end to let us mere humans when winter will end and spring will begin.

There's always politics involved - so sad