Next Wednesday, 2 February, is Groundhog Day. Is there anyone, anywhere, who hasn’t seen the movie yet? If so, do yourself a favour, take it out of the local video shop, and enjoy Bill Murray’s performance as the grumpy weather man who learns to be a nicer person by constantly repeating the same day until he finally gets it right.
The 1993 film has given Groundhog Day the meaning of something endlessly repeated – think ‘going forward’, or ‘a great big new tax’, or a whole election campaign, for that matter – but its initial meaning was a reference to the groundhog himself, Punxsutawney Phil, whose alleged ability to predict the weather provides the basic plot.
Punxsutawney Phil is one of a number of groundhogs/gophers/beavers across North America who perform this task, by coming out of their winter quarters on 2 February to check on the weather. Counter-intuitively, a sunny day, which casts a shadow, is bad news, indicating that winter will continue for another 40 days, whereas if there’s no shadow, the weather will be milder and spring is on the way.
2 February is 40 days after Christmas. In traditional Christian practice, the day is the festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary, a good Jewish girl, went to the temple to be ritually cleansed after bearing a male child 40 days earlier, and to give thanks to God.
Feminists may baulk at the link between childbirth and pollution that this practice implies, but perhaps it made more sense in a world where post-partum infections were deadly and could be caught from exposure to the wider community. A woman who survived these 40 dangerous days had plenty of good reasons to head to the temple to give thanks.
In Britain, 2 February was known as Candlemas, the day when the priest blessed the candles that would be used during the year ahead. The day was important as the last festival in the cycle associated with Christmas. Together with St Blaise’s Day the next day, these days marked the passing of winter, the moment when spring might – perhaps – be finally on its way.
Hibernating animals were beginning to stir and, according to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Carnival at Romans), on St Blaise’s Day ‘the bear’s resounding fart of dehibernation celebrated the primordial rite of spring’.
This time of the year, then, was associated with hibernation and rebirth, and with the arrival of spring and the beginning of the agricultural year. As the planting began, a reliable weather forecast was much needed. Punxsutawney Phil and his American mates come from a long European tradition of springtime predictions, often based on the same concept: sunny bad, cloudy good. An English poem, for instance, says:
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again.
Immigrant farmers brought the Candlemas traditions with them to North America, probably from Germany, and the first record of a predictive groundhog dates from 1841.
Unfortunately, if the Wikipedia entry is to be believed, Punxsutawney Phil’s record is not good, with an accuracy rate of less than 40%. When geographically specific weather lore is transferred to a new location, it doesn’t work as well, or needs to be reinvented in some way.
And what about us, here in the southern hemisphere?
‘The North Wind doth blow,
And it will bring snow’
You’ve got to be kidding. They’ve just announced another cyclone off the Queensland coast.
Reference: Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, John Lindow (eds.), Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs (2002) – which contains the Ladurie quote, p.32.
On weather lore in an Australian context, look at the Bureau of Meteorology’s website, Indigenous Weather Knowledge