The German roots of Groundhog Day
February 2 is Groundhog Day back home in the states. On the day, a furry mammal will shake off its deep winter sleep long enough to emerge from its burrow. Should our rodent friend catch sight of its shadow, this is taken as a sign that spring will arrive early. If, however, the groundhog doesn't see its shadow, it’s a sign for it (and all the rest of us) to hunker down, as weeks of bitter cold remain on the horizon.
But how on earth did such a curious superstition ever arise?
The roots of this holiday extend beneath the Atlantic and take us back to Europe. The groundhog as indication of what’s in store for us weather-wise is a tradition to which we can credit the Pennsylvania Dutch. Now this particular group of immigrants really weren’t Dutch at all, but hailed from the Rhineland, Switzerland, Tyrol and other mid-European regions. A great many immigrated to the U.S. in the first half of the eighteenth century. They took with them the belief that a badger (Dachs) catching sight of its shadow on the day meant winter would linger that much longer.
The Feb. 2 date is significant to the festivities in two ways. As the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it’s the time of year when winter is halfway over. It’s also an important date in terms of the church calendar. 40 days after Christmas comes the holiday known as Candlemas. This Christian holy day commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the temple and, to some, the end of the Christmas season. In some churches, this is the date upon which the Christmas decorations will finally be taken down. Another tradition associated with this day is the blessing of the candles. Some Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics in particular will bring their candles to their local church, where they will be blessed and used in rituals for the remainder of the year. The candles are symbolic of Jesus Christ, who called himself the Light of the World.
In some parts of France and Belgium, Chandeleur, or Candlemas, it’s traditional to eat crêpes. All the candles in the house are lit, and the manger scenes are tucked out of sight for another year. On “Liichtmëssdag” in Luxembourg, a visitor might encounter children roaming the streets, holding their lighted lanterns aloft and singing traditional songs. In exchange for the impromptu concerts, they’ll be given some small change or sweet treats.
In the absence of a groundhog or badger to give us the lowdown on the German weather to come, we can rejoice in one sure thing: the days are growing noticeably longer, and the darkest of mornings and earliest of nights are now a thing of the past.