Groundhog Day is our first holiday that formally looks forward to spring weather, optimistically reminding us that it will come sooner or later, the interesting question being which it will be. The equivalent holiday worked likewise for our ancestors centuries ago, with one difference: Technically the date actually was the beginning of spring. Today we regard this holiday as quaint and secular, but in centuries past it was mythological and religious, featuring rituals that were taken seriously. This holiday, Carnival, and Valentine’s Day are actually related, as we shall see, so this is just the first in a trilogy of posts about our interrelated February holidays.
The importance of what is now the beginning of February goes back even to Neolithic times. In Ireland we find in Neolithic monuments alignments for the rising sun on this date, which became the festival of Imbolc. According to the Irish myth Tochmarc Emire (“The Wooing of Emer”), the maiden Emer named the calendar points of the year, including Imbolc, when setting up a challenge to her half-divine suitor, the hero Cú Chulainn, to remain awake for an entire year in order to win her. She divided the seasons of the year according to the four days which fall roughly halfway between the solstices and equinoxes (called cross-quarter days), now the first days of February, May, August, and November. Emer called the opening of spring Imbolc, after the lactation and milking of ewes which began at that time of year (Hutton, p. 134). Thus, for Ireland anyway, was created what is commonly called the Celtic calendar. Our practice of dividing the seasons at the equinoxes and solstices is relatively recent, coming to full fruition only in the 20th century, following the lead of America (Hutton, p. 145; Aveni, p. 38). But even today in America, we still have at least three holidays marking the old seasonal divisions: Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween. (The first-fruits or harvest festival of August 1 is not observed here in our industrialized society, but it continues in some places, such as Lughnasa in Ireland.) Before the advent of the Gregorian calendar, this beginning of spring occurred on February 14, which is now assigned to Valentine’s Day (more about that in a subsequent post).
All four cross-quarter days were considered days of transition, when the veils between the normal and supernatural worlds were thin. So it was natural that people practiced divination on these holidays, which pertained not just to when the warm weather would arrive, but also more generally to the season’s crops, prospects for marriage, and other matters of concern. People also sought supernatural blessings for protection against sickness, blight, evil spirits, and other nasty things. For this purpose, protective fires, in the form of bonfires, torches, and candles were also part of rituals. In Christian times the Irish thought that St. Brigit traveled around Ireland on the eve of her holiday (Christianized Imbolc, called St. Brigit’s Day, thought of as her birthday, appropriately at the start of spring), conferring blessings on people and their livestock, and visiting their homes. Accordingly, the Irish had home rituals designed to welcome her into their homes and receive her blessings (Danaher, pp. 14-37; Dames, pp. 252-54).
When it came to divining the weather, people used various mediums to determine what was coming, including animals, which is natural: Any farmer or herdsman can predict the weather by watching the animals. Most important were hibernating animals, which emerge from their winter sleep in the spring. In Ireland, just to see a hedgehog (the European holiday equivalent of our groundhog) on February 1 was a good sign (Danaher, p. 14); not surprisingly, the hedgehog came to be connected with St. Brigit, and its behavior on her day was thought to predict the weather (Santino, pp. 59, 79-80; Aveni, p. 37). The focus on the hedgehog (or badger) for divining the weather was most pronounced in Germany, however, which is how this holiday ritual made it to America via the so-called Pennsylvania “Dutch,” which was originally “Deutsch” since these immigrants were really Germans (who then used the American groundhog as the oracular animal). It was from Germany that the idea spread that the animal seeing his shadow on February 1 meant a continuation of winter for several weeks, whereas seeing no shadow meant that the warm weather was about to come, in which case the animal should remain out of hibernation.
People are often puzzled why a sunny Groundhog’s Day, when the groundhog sees its shadow, means that winter will continue, but cloudy or bad weather portends that spring weather is nearly upon us. Doesn’t this seem backwards? The answer, I suspect, lies in the original mythology lying behind the holiday ritual.
Originally in Europe, the animal associated with this holiday was not a hedgehog, but the bear. Only when the population of bears in Europe was diminished did people resort to hedgehogs as a substitute for divination on this day. Bears were the largest, most powerful and magnificent creatures in Europe, the king of beasts, like lions in the more southern climes. Venerated since prehistoric times, the bear was the oldest zoomorphic deity (Campbell, p. 127), and they have figured prominently in myths, folktales, and art. Some of their traits are similar to humans, so they were viewed in anthropomorphic (including totemic) terms, often viewed as the ancestors of humans. They also could move between worlds, and thus were thought even to instruct shamans (Edwards). Importantly, they also were considered spirit or soul animals (Edwards), and their shadow was thought of as their soul.
The process of hibernating in the winter and emerging back into the world in the spring was thought of in terms of death and rebirth (Ronnberg, p. 272), much like the seasonal death and rebirth of plants. In the winter, life goes back into the womb of the earth (death), only to be reborn. When the bear “dies” and for so long as it is dead before it is ready to be reborn, its soul must remain in the underworld. So, if it emerges from hibernation (its “little death” (Ronnberg, p. 272)) on February 1 and sees its shadow (soul) on earth, this emergence is premature: It must return for a few weeks because it has not yet completed the sleep of death and rebirth, so spring weather must await. On the other hand, if he sees no shadow, then he has truly completed the full cycle of death and rebirth, so spring can begin and he can remain above ground. Such seasonal, cyclic processes of nature also resulted in spiritual analogues in the form of ancient mystery rites such as the Eleusinian and Mithraic mysteries, where candidates were initiated in underground caverns and experienced (spiritual) rebirth.
This mythology helps us to understand the plot ideas in the famous and insightful Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. There Murray’s character is equated with the groundhog: He is named Phil, like the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, and like the groundhog he is a weatherman. At the outset of the film it is winter, so Phil is figuratively in hibernation, a state of (for him, spiritual) death. So Phil re-lives days over and over again, because he is like the bear/groundhog whose soul has not yet undergone transformation and who must return to hibernate more until he gets it right and is ready, like any prospective initiate. In the end, by eventually learning to love and be authentic, he is reborn, spiritually, into a new day (at last!) and a new life.
Today, Groundhog Day is but a shadow (so to speak) of its former self: It is not observed at the beginning of spring, there is no bear, and the original mythology has been lost. But at least we have a fine film to remind us of what (in part) this date originally meant to people.
Sources and Bibliography
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Campbell, Joseph. Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. Novato, California: New World Library, 2015.
Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: The Mercier Press, 1972.
Edwards, Eric. “Bear Worship and Bear Cults” (2014), available at https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/bear-cults-and-bear-worship
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ronnberg, Ami, ed. The Book of Symbols. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2010.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Yoder, Don. Groundhog Day. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003.