How did Groundhog Day start? (1910)

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Some facts about Groundhog Day

To the Editor of the University Missourian: I should like to have the full history of “Groundhog’s Day,” as in one of our clubs this subject was assigned for investigation and we can find nothing here. I shall appreciate it very much if you will give us the desired information through the Missourian. Thanking you for anything on the subject. – I remain, Yours truly, O C Griffith

The following answer to the foregoing query was prepared by George Reeder, meteorologist in the United States Weather Bureau and director of the Missouri Climatological service:

Mr Griffith’s trouble in the attempt to trace the origin of “groundhog’s day” is not unlike that of others along the same lines.

Authorities differ as to what a groundhog really is. A groundhog, says one authority, is one of those animals that live on or in the ground. The facts are that in parts of America and Europe, the groundhog may be either a bear, badger or woodchuck. The more general opinion is, however, that the groundhog is a woodchuck, in other words, a marmot (a monax), being a heavy, broad-headed grizzled animal of the woods and fields, yellowish to whitish gray in color, blackish on the back and crown, and chestnut on the belly, with the feet and tail brownish black. They abound throughout the United States east of the dry plains.

As to the origin of “Groundhog’s Day,” I am unable to give any definite information, as from the earliest ages men’s minds have been occupied with the ever-varying changes of the weather. We do know, however, that Candlemas Day is an ecclesiastical festival instituted by Pope Glasius I in 492, and is celebrated on February 2.

It also must be taken into consideration that the systems of dividing time into years, months, weeks and days was different from that now used. The Gregorian, or reformed calendar, was adopted by the Catholic princes in 1577, in other countries somewhat later, and in England as late as 1752. One may learn by this that groundhog’s day during the old days was not the same as it is now.

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Whether Candlemas Day was celebrated on February 2 because it was groundhog’s day or whether the groundhog was asked to select Candlemas Day to an nounce his long-ranged weather forecasts, I am unable to say. It seems that, according to the notion of our ancestors, on groundhog’s day, or Candlemas Day, the bear, badger or wood chuck comes out at noon to see his shadow. If he does not see it, he remains out; but if he does see it he goes back to his hole for six weeks, and cold weather continues for six weeks longer. The sayings of the Scotch, English and French agree in many particulars in regard to weather folklore — such, for instance, as Candlemas day (February 2).

A few of the predictions relative to Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas Day, otherwise now known as February 2, follow:

“If the groundhog is sunning himself on February 2, he will return to his hole for six weeks, and cold weather continues for six weeks longer.” (English and French)

“If on Candlemas day (February 2) it is bright and clear, the groundhog will stay in his den, thus indicating that more snow and cold are to come; but if it snows or rains, he will creep out, as winter is ended.” (German)

“If Candlemas day be fine and clear, Corn and fruits will then be dear. If Candlemas day bring cloud and rain, Winter is gone and won’t come again.”

It is said that an European shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his fold on Candlemas day than the sun.

While some of these old sayings are interesting, they are unworthy of serious thought. It is proper to state that all the old long-range weather sayings based upon the observed or supposed habits of animals and birds have received careful investigation, and there is no value whatever attached to sayings of this class. Nearly all of the old sayings are connected with the saints’ days, having been selected of course for their “special influence.”

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The strangest part of it is that there are still many amongst us, even though it be called an enlightened and scientific age, that firmly believe in the weather prediction proclivities of the groundhog day and also in other old sayings of the same class, thereby indicating that they still occasionally “tread on the fringes of the veil of superstition.”

Whatever the groundhog’s weather forecasting abilities may be in other countries, he is a fakir in Missouri. February 2, 1910, was a cloudy, rainy or snowy day throughout the state — just an ideal day for him to come out and make a six weeks’ mild weather forecast. Could we by any possible means call the prevailing weather conditions since February 2 mild and pleasant?

Image: Arctomys monax, Maryland Marmot, Woodchuck, Groundhog. From the Audubon collection via The New York Public Library.

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