Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Groundhog Day

 In the US it's groundhog day, when supposedly the groundhog (also known as woodchuck) comes out of his burrow and sees (or doesn't see) his shadow, thus becoming a weather predictor.  (There's also a movie called Groundhog Day, but we won't be concerned with that.)  Did they have groundhog day in the Middle Ages?

Marmota monax UL 04.jpg

No! In part for the excellent reason that they don't have groundhogs in Europe.

They did however have February 2 (you probably figured that out all by yourself).  In the medieval Christian calendar, this was the date of the Purification of the Virgin.  In Jewish tradition, a woman who had given birth was supposed to undergo ritual purification a month or six weeks after she gave birth, so this is when, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary went up to Jerusalem to do so and first presented baby Jesus at the Temple.  (Wait, you say, I thought they'd fled into Egypt.  That was a different version of the Christmas story.  We won't worry about that now.)

February 2 is an important day in its own right, considered to be halfway between the solstice (shortest day of the year) and the equinox.  Medieval churches celebrated it as Candlemas, the day that a year's worth of candles would be consecrated, nice and pure like the Virgin.  There appears to have been a legend that if it was clear weather on Candlemas day, then it would get very cold and wintery for the rest of the month.

At some point, probably in the post-medieval period, a legend grew up in Germany that you could tell how clear Candlemas day really was by whether a badger (Dachs in German) could see its shadow.  When the Amish, fleeing persecution in Germany, settled in what became Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, they brought this story with them.  There are a lot more groundhogs than badgers in Pennsylvania, so the story got transferred to them.

During the twentieth century, what had been a minor Pennsylvania Dutch story became a media hit in North America.  Soon there was an Official Groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.  Different places soon wanted their own official groundhog.  Ohio has Buckeye Chuck.  Ontario has Whireton Willie.  Even Nova Scotia has a version of what they call Dax Day (presumably a name derived from the German word for badger).  Something tells me that Nova Scotia does not get springlike weather in February, no matter what the groundhog sees.

Fun fact: woodchucks are scientifically called marmots.  They are related to squirrels, being large rodents.  The name woodchuck comes from the Algonquin wuchak, what some native Americans called them (it has nothing to do with wood or chucking).  The name groundhog is self-evident.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.  Also available in paperback1

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