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Feature

Punxsutawney Phil

Photo courtesy of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

Groundhog Day means we're halfway through this--winter?

The legend of the prognosticating rodent is grounded in ancient Celtic history

By Deane Morrison

February 1, 2006

The legend of Groundhog Day, observed on February 2, concerns a rodent burrowed in the earth, but the holiday actually began high in the sky. Not with the clouds but with the sun. It started with the ancient Celts, who lived in what is modern-day Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland, and Scotland. The Celts recognized not only the yearly solstices (June and December) and equinoxes (March and September), but also the four "cross-quarter" days that fell midway between a solstice and an equinox. The most famous of the cross-quarter days is Samhain (rhymes with "how when"), which marked the beginning of the dark half of the year and is now celebrated as Halloween. Beltane, the beginning of the light half of the year, is what we call May Day. Halfway between them came Imbolc, meaning lamb's milk, the midpoint of the dark season and a day to look forward to spring. We call it Groundhog Day, and it is also a halfway mark for us, being the midpoint of our three-month winter season.

In the Celtic tradition, it was considered a good omen if the day was cloudy, for that portended warm spring rains to loosen up soils for planting. But if the day was sunny and bright, that meant more cold and wintry weather. Through the ages, people have noticed the habits of badgers, bears, groundhogs (woodchucks), and other animals that sleep or hibernate through the winter, and the notion of an animal testing the weather around this date may have some basis in actual observations.

According to University meteorologist Mark Seeley, historical records imply that an animal poking its head out of a burrow in Minnesota on Groundhog Day would cast a shadow about 70 to 80 percent of the time.

Imbolc was also called Brigantia, for the Celtic goddess of light, in recognition of the sun having risen from the depths of the winter solstice halfway to the point of the spring equinox. When the Christian church took hold in Celtic lands, Brigantia became St. Bridget and the holiday retained the theme of light. It began with lighting candles to celebrate the presentation of the Christ child in the temple of Jerusalem and evolved into Candlemas, the day when a church's stock of ceremonial candles was blessed.

The connection of Candlemas to weather forecasts is preserved in many folkloric sayings, including this one:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight
But if Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter is gone and won't come again

According to University meteorologist Mark Seeley, historical records imply that an animal poking its head out of a burrow in Minnesota on Groundhog Day would cast a shadow about 70 to 80 percent of the time. Given winter's tendency, at least until very recently, to blast us well past this date, that would give local rodents an enviable record in weather forecasting. Two of the most memorable Groundhog Days occurred in the 1990s, Seeley says. The warmest ever, by a large margin, was in 1991.

"Several locations reported daytime highs in the 60s," Seeley says. "In fact, the 66 degrees reported at Wheaton (in Traverse County) that year remains the statewide record high."

Just five years later, the opposite occurred. Groundhog Day 1996 brought the lowest temperature ever measured in the state: minus 60 F at Tower in St. Louis County.

"In fact, that morning many station record lows were established, as 11 different communities reported a low temperature of minus 50 F or colder," Seeley says.

"Sometimes," he adds, "the weather on Groundhog Day sends an emphatic message that winter is to continue." In 1915 a storm dumped 15 to 20 inches of snow on southern Minnesota, closing schools and playing havoc with transportation. Groundhog Day 2004 also saw plenty of snow, from 5 to 12 inches. In some places, snowfall went on for 45 hours from January 31 through February 2, according to Seeley.

Groundhog Day 2006 will probably not go down in the record books, but recent warm and cloudy weather makes it look as though spring is indeed just around the corner. Except there's not much of a corner because there's been no winter to turn into spring. If this trend keeps up, it'll be a long time before Punxatawney Phil sees his shadow on his special day again.

For more on Minnesota and Groundhog Day, consult the Minnesota Weather Almanac, by Seeley with a foreword by KARE-11 chief meteorologist Belinda Jensen, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and available this April.