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The Hazy Shade of Winter, and What the Groundhog Found There

Posted on 02/01/2021

Consider the groundhog, how its reputation precedes it. It neither sows nor reaps (over the winter), yet learned editors and numerous others laud this rodent’s “vaticinations” upon its annual February 2nd emergence from hibernation. Or was that on February 1st? 

BULLY FOR THE GROUNDHOG.—ITS VATICINATIONS BEING VERIFIED.—Among editors and other learned personages it has long been a question of no less earnest than profound controversy, whether February first or February second is the true and legitimate “Groundhog Day.” We have always adhered, with Big-endian pertinacity, to the second day; and we respectfully submit, that the meteorological events of the immediately subsequent days prove, beyond a decent quibble, that the second is the genuine Groundhog Day. 

Groundhog Day coincides with the Christian holiday of Candlemas that’s celebrated as the festival of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also as the day on which the young Jesus Christ was first presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. The procession of candles is said to be a concession to a more ancient ritual involving the Roman goddess Ceres’ search for her daughter Proserpine following the latter’s abduction by Pluto to rule as Queen of the Underworld. Proserpine is the goddess of spring, and Ceres honors the harvest; torches were involved, so the candles and the season. 

Pope Innocent, in a sermon to the infernal gods, and as, at the beginning of it, Pluto stole Prosperine, and her mother sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they at the beginning of this month walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers would not utterly [extirpate] this custom they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and thus what was done before to the honor of Ceres is now done for the honor of the Virgin. 

The groundhog must be exceedingly fertile in fact and imagination as its legend is claimed severally as native to Scotland, Ireland, and especially to Germany (where the animal is styled as a badger). With a nod to nativism, the excerpt below from the Trenton Evening Times ascribes Groundhog Day to American Indians:

While the groundhog has really nothing to do with Candlemas, nor Candlemas with the groundhog, it is declared that the Indians of long ago did find the little animal a fairly accurate weather prophet. The redskins under aboriginal conditions were close students of the habits of birds and animals, and they depended upon the furred and feathered friends to provide them with advance information on the weather. 

According to the Indian traditions, it was observed that at the first onslaught of winter the groundhogs burrowed into their holes. There they remained for two moons, or a period of eight weeks. At the expiration of that period the animals again appeared on the surface. The Indians watched closely for their appearance, and, if the animals remained above ground, they concluded that winter was practically over. If, on the contrary, the groundhogs soon disappeared into their burrows, it was looked upon as an indication of further severe weather. 

In the enlightened nineteenth century the premise of prognosticating critters was put to empirical tests. Missourians of 1887 wrote portentously of “Conflicting Evidence” with regard to the groundhog’s prophetic powers:

The sun was not shining when the groundhog belonging to Mr. John F. White at 508 Main street came out from his winter quarters and hence, not seeing his shadow, he ate the first food he had tasted for three months and returned to his hole again. 

Mr. White says that the fact that the groundhog didn’t take fright at his shadow and ate heartily is a sure sign that there will be an early spring. The groundhog belonging to Nat Vincent, criminal clerk, did not venture out at all, and this fact makes it evident that the groundhogs this year are not in collusion to deceive people about an early spring. Mr. Vincent’s groundhog burrowed into the ground October 29 last and has not come out or tasted a particle of food since. No superstitious person yesterday believed that the two groundhogs could have acted differently, and as there are only two groundhogs in town, it will be hard to conclude which groundhog is in the right, as there can be no majority, and whether there will be an early spring or not. 

“Oh, those crazy Missourians and their confounding, coddled groundhogs,” you say. “Whatever will they think of next?” And you would be doing scant justice to Missourians for they were not alone in their ruminations on this far-seeing forager. Submitted for your perusal—Columbus, Georgia: 

A Mt. Holly dispatch says: John Boyer is a well-to-do and thoroughly veracious farmer, who lives one mile from this place. Last summer he captured a ground hog alive, and resolved to keep it if he could and put to the test the sacred backwoods tradition that the ground hog never fails to wake up from his winter’s sleep on the 2d of February and walk out to see how the weather is, so that he can make his calculations for the immediate future. The ground hog was put in a comfortable cage to await the course of events. 

“That ground hog thrived amazin’,” said Farmer Boyer the other day. “He was as lively as a cricket until November came, and laid down, rolled himself up in a ball, and went to sleep. We left him lay, as his cage was in a warm enough place. He never give any sign o’ gittin’ over his nap all winter long, an’ consequently didn’t have anything to eat or drink. It came along to February, and I kep’ my eye glued on him. On the mornin’ of the 2d I sot down in front o’ that cage early in the mornin’, so that no move of the old feller could escape me.

“I sot there all the forenoon. The ground hog didn’t show no signs o’ wakin’ up and I was feelin’ good, for I didn’t take any stock in this ground hog day business, and I wanted to knock the spots off of it. About a minute before 12 o’clock, though, the old feller begun to show life. He unfolded first one leg and then another, and pretty soon opened himself up and raised upon his feet. He took a good, long, old-fashioned stretch, like any one does when he gets up after a good snooze, gaped a little, and then walked out o’ the open door of that cage as cool as if he’d only been takin’ a five minutes’ nap. 

“He come out, looked around a bit, seemed to be satisfied, and stayed out. He hain’t showed no inclination to go away, but he’s been awake ever since, and takes his rations reg’lar as clock work. He didn’t see his shadder, you know. There’s sumpin’ in ground hog day, I tell you.”

Selection bias? Sampling errors? Wishful thinking? That didn’t stop Oklahoma from following Indiana’s lead in drafting legislation in 1915 for this peculiar holiday: 

February 2 will be made the official and undisputed Groundhog day in Oklahoma, if favorable action is taken on a house concurrent resolution introduced today by William J. Ladd of Creek county and L.N. Barbee of Grady county. The resolution follows: 

Whereas, There is a difference of opinion among the most scholarly and erudite citizens of Oklahoma and of the various states as to the annual arrival from his winter hibernation of a certain [well-known] prognosticator with an authentic forecast of the coming season, and, 

Whereas, The unsettled state of this momentous question makes it impossible for the citizens of this state to properly prepare for the exigencies of the coming season, and 

Whereas: This state has had a precedent set in the fixing of this date by the legislature of the state of Indiana, and

Whereas, The state of Oklahoma having regulated all other changes of the season, it should authorize and commend the appearance on a certain date of this weather prediction, and 

Whereas, Such action by the state of Oklahoma would definitely settle this question for all time to come. Therefore, be it 

Resolved, That the second day of February is hereby designated as “Groundhog Day” and the groundhog is commended to make his annual appearance on that date. 

In St. Louis, Missouri, a club was formed and a festive dinner held. The Groundhog Club there did not dine on actual groundhogs, though. They even disagreed as to what groundhogs in fact were, so a live pig stood in for the free-range oracle. The suckling pig was served dinner right along with the members whose birthdays all fell on February 2. The record does not state how far into their cups the celebrants were when they could no longer see their own shadows. 

The invited guests yesterday were Edward L. Preetorius, Louis Idler, John F. Magner, Herbert M. Young, A.R. Faust and H.S. Reavis. A real live pig, 2 weeks old, which had been presented by Mr. Duffy to Mr. Kehrmann, also graced the occasion within the confines of a latticed box and grunted its approval of the sentiment expressed in the various toasts. 

One waiter’s time was occupied exclusively in serving the little beast continuous courses of milk from a bottle through a rubber medium. Mr. Duffy, who is the owner of several farms, but who denies, nevertheless, that he is anything of a farmer himself, promised each member of the club and each guest a duplicate of the animal next year as a souvenir of the club’s 1900 celebration. 

Groundhogs were very much on the menu of the Groundhog Club in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in 1912.  Local politician Col. Bill Fairman used the occasion of a convention in Baltimore to insult a rival before plunging into his own rhetorical hole with a draconian solution to the weather control conundrum. 

I’ve said before we’ve butter now
That never see a home-made cow. 
To my mind any man’s a dunce
Who won’t try every new thing once. 
But men like you who think they’re Cupid
Are acting just plumb goldarn stupid. 

And after this crushing blow Colonel Bill got back again to his interrupted story of the Punxsutawney groundhog club, of which Colonel Bill is president. The life work of the club is to catch and eat the groundhogs when they come out of their holes on Candlemas Day so the critters can’t go back into their holes for six weeks after they see their shadows. 

“And since first we got together Punxsutawney’s had fair weather,” concluded Colonel Bill. 

Punxsutawney politics was a rough-and-tumble pursuit even before 1912 as evidenced by a 1909 excerpt decrying high crimes and misdemeanors in relation to the Groundhog Club. At least they settled the question of what the animals truly were. Their conclusion was that groundhogs were neither more nor less than rats. 

Punxsutawney in 1906 gave Edwin S. Stuart 186 more votes than it gave [Democratic candidate Lewis] Emery. Yet Punxsutawney proposes to invite him whom she helped to make governor of this great state to come there and eat Arctomys monax! 

We have no other fault to find with Punxsutawney. Its name is distinguished—there is not another like in all the world. It has a newspaper that has given it added fame. As long ago as 1890 it was underlaid with bituminous coal and had a bank, three churches, a foundry and 2,792 inhabitants. Doubtless it has some more now and soon it is to have an Old Home Week. 

But does that, or all these, warrant the people of Punxsutawney in presuming to ask the governor of the commonwealth to sit with them at a feast of Arctomys monax? No. 

What is Arctomys monax? The answer is groundhog. What is groundhog? The answer is woodchuck. What is woodchuck? The answer is American marmot. What is marmot? The answer is, literally, mountain mouse or rats. Rats! Rats on which to banquet the governor. 

Punxsutawney, you are at a crisis in your career!

Rising above the political fray, in 1918 the prudent residents of Miami, Florida, were having nothing to do with Groundhog Day because, well, no winter and no groundhogs. Simple. Alligators, yes. Groundhogs, not so much. 

In 1916 the Manatee River Journal of Bradenton, Florida, raised the ominous possibility that Groundhog Day could be inconclusive because of a solar eclipse that took place on February 3 of that year. In fairness, a total solar eclipse did occur on February 2 in the year 892. Admittedly that took place under the Julian calendar but one can’t be too careful about these things. It has happened before. It can happen again. 

The groundhog saw its shadow in the Land of Manatee yesterday if it came to the daylight before three o’clock, and if it came to the open later it was met by a deluge of rain which should have had the effect of dampening its ardor for the early springtime perambulations. 

Old-time Crackers who have studied the practical effect of the goosebone, the corn shuck and the woods berries on the weather, are disposed to attach importance to the phenomenon of sunshine on February second, throwing the groundhog’s shadow and followed immediately by the partial eclipse of the sun which occurred today, and which attracted the attention of a large number of sky-gazers at about 10 o’clock. 

Now it bears mention that hard winters are relative rather than absolute phenomena. In 1919 a writer in the Trenton Evening Times waxed eloquent about just how terrible winters were in the past. If even half of these assertions are true, things were grim indeed; how the groundhogs survived such dire circumstances is lost to history. 

Looking over the records of the “hard winters” of the past, we find that the Black Sea was frozen over for twenty days in the year 402; that the seas at Constantinople were frozen a hundred miles from shore in 764; that the Adriatic was frozen over in 860; that the Thames was frozen for fourteen weeks in 1063; that the Baltic was frozen over in 1323, in 1402 and in 1460, when horse passengers crossed from Denmark to Sweden; that wine was sold in frozen chunks in Flanders in 1544; that the sea of Venice was frozen in 1594; that forest trees were split by the frost in England in 1684, and the ice on the Thames was so thick that shops were built on it; that Austria was almost submerged by snow in 1691, when the wolves became so famished that they entered Vienna and attacked people and animals; that New York harbor was frozen over in 1780 and again in 1821, and that early explorers in the Dakotas, Manitoba and the northwest declared that the winters were so severe and the cold so terrific that only the sturdiest of men could survive. 

Such adversity might well lead to the following response by a certain earnest denizen of the great State of Texas: 

When the groundhog peeped out on Panther city landscape at an early hour Saturday morning, he is said to have smiled. Fort Worth smiled. The sun, too, grinned merrily as the world awoke pleasantly. The entire city smiled with the groundhog, but before the day’s shadows had lengthened the sun left for parts unknown and the groundhog wept. He shivered, bitter cold, while his tears were frozen before he thought about trying to see his shadow and, maybe, some of the world wept with him, making one case where the poor devil didn’t weep alone. 

With this heart-rending account of the travails of such a simple yet noble animal, our mission is clear: don’t let the groundhog see his (or her) shadow on February 2. But no eating them, please. You’ve no doubt heard of D-Day; this is “Groundhog Day.” Umbrellas up! Cap-locks on! We have nothing to lose but our mittens! And parkas. And snow boots. And scarves. 

According to Tradition the Future Weather Depends Entirely on the Little Animal. 


This is “Groundhog Day” and humanity waits trembling on the appearance of the fateful little animal. According to good old Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, handed down for nobody knows how many years, if the groundhog sees his shadow to-day he will go back to his burrow for a six weeks nap, during which the worst of winter weather will prevail, and who will be so rash and unbelieving as to declare that the ancestors who handed down to the present generation the grand heritages of machine politics and sauer kraut did not know what they were talking about when they formulated the groundhog theory. [On] the other hand if the little weather regulator is left to enjoy the delights of a cloudy day then will his anger against humanity and the weather man be mollified and he will conjure the warm south wind and banish the chilly winter blast. Spring will come and winter will be relegated to the far off districts of the northland.

Everybody knows that all this will happen, even though the irreverent weather man insinuates that the groundhog is a humbug, and even goes so far as to point out that in nine cases out of ten during the past decade he has failed to live up to the things expected of him. There is an ungrounded belief among the weather observers and forecasters that the groundhog story was originally intended for publication as a chapter in Mother Goose’s nursery tales, but of course nobody outside that benighted circle takes any stock in the idea. 



When you emerge from hibernation (or quarantine) you would do well to consult the sales team at Readex to ensure auspicious research results. 

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