Saturday, 2 February 2013

It's Groundhog Day, one of the weirdest prediction events in the folklore calender


Today in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA, the largest Groundhog Day celebration will  be underway as the announcement of the coming spring season rests on the shadow of a furry little rodent.

Folklore is full of weird predictive traditions, but few rival the strange practice of watching a groundhog emerge from its burrow to see whether it will see its shadow or not. 

It is said that if it's a cloudy day and it doesn't spot its shadow then there will be an early spring, but should the little critter spy its shadow then there will be six more weeks of winter. 

This prognostication ritual stems from European weather lore, where a badger or bear was the one doing the predicting, but also from Imbolc, an ancient Irish pagan festival that celebrated the coming of the new season, and Candlemas, a feast day on the 2nd February. The latter celebration was a result of the Christianisation of the Celtic traditions and brought along with it a prognostication rhyme:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

In the diary of James Morris, a Pennsylvanian man, dated February 4, 1841, one of the earliest recorded instances of Groundhog Day can be seen:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

But just how accurate are the rodent's predictions? Well, predictably, not very. While the organisers of Groundhog Day celebrations say that it's correct 75% to 90% of the time, a study into weather patterns and predictions over 30-40 years has found that the groundhog is only 37% correct. When you consider 33% is chance, it's not particularly significant.

Nevertheless, Groundhog Days is a great excuse to get together and have some fun. In Pennsylvania, they have a custom known as Fersommlinge, a German tradition where speeches are made, food is served and plays are performed. An additional quirk to this custom states that only the Pennsylvanian German dialect can be spoken during the festivities, and those who speak English must put money into the centre of the table.

In Groundhog Day, we see yet another example of how traditions from the world over can become amalgamated into something brand new. What was originally a celtic tradition became a European one and in turn an American one, evolving along the way. 

But now I leave you with the true purpose of Groundhog Day.