Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas. Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was. It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology. In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days. The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised. Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification. And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days. It’s all there in Leviticus.
What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day? Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2. And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days. Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile. That gave the feast its common name. The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet. Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.
In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare. Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do. In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future, the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter. Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days. Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays. It’s still winter out there. It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow. Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well. Winter, it seems, never ends.