The groundhog is coming!

Groundhog, or woodchuck
Marmota monax
Bruce Museum Collection 2006.06

Groundhog Day

THE EVENT

Although Groundhog Day is February 2, the Bruce Museum will celebrate the event on Sunday, February 1, from 1:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. for the First Sunday Science at the Seaside Center program at Greenwich Point Park. Anne Burns of the Astronomical Society of Greenwich will discuss why Groundhog Day and other holidays have their roots in the movement of our planet. The Museum's own groundhog specimen (on view at the Bruce Museum for the next few weeks) will be on display for the day at the Center. Visitors of all ages can learn about the reason for the seasons, find out fun facts about the groundhog, and try shadow-making activities including  more than a dozen hand-shadow creatures. The free program is suitable for all ages and held at the Innis Arden Cottage at Greenwich Point Park, Old Greenwich.  For more information about this program, contact cynthiae@brucemuseum.org.

THE BACKGROUND

Following the movements of the Sun, ancient peoples in northern Europe celebrated various holidays at the solstices, the equinoxes, and the “cross-quarter days” halfway between, which for them marked the beginnings of the seasons.  (The solstices and equinoxes, which we see as the beginnings of each season, were the midpoints.)   Thus, at the beginning of February, they celebrated Imbolc, or “lambs’ milk,” because sheep began to give birth at that time.  As anyone who has read James Herriot’s books knows, lambing time is marked by snow and cold temperatures – but the new births meant that spring was on the way.

A legend grew up that hibernating hedgehogs would come out at this time of year.  If it was sunny, the hedgehog saw its shadow, knew there would be a late spring, and went back to sleep.  If the day was cloudy, an early spring was on the way.   This has some basis in fact, since clear days are usually the coldest, while cloudy weather brings rain and warmer temperatures – meaning that the fields begin to thaw and crops can be planted earlier.

When Europe became Christian, February 2 became the Feast of the Presentation, the 40th day after Christmas, when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (see Luke 2:22ff).  There an old man named Simeon called the child “a light to the nations,” so the day was marked by candlelight processions – which also symbolized the lengthening of the days as the spring equinox approached - and called “Candlemas.”

Thus an old Scottish song tells us:

If Candle-mas Day is bright and clear,
There'll be two winters in the year. 

English and German settlers in North America transferred this belief to the groundhog – hence the yearly ritual of Punxsatawny Phil.