January 31, 2017: Groundhogs, Germans, & Grandfathers

We’ve practically made it through January now, and have only a short time of winter to look forward to—that is, if the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow on February 2. Here’s another holiday that had its origins in pagan times, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the beginning of spring and known originally known among the Celts as Imbolc. The Church renamed the day Candlemas as the occasion for the clergy to bless and distribute candles to their parishioners to help them through the remaining dark of winter, just as it made Christmas out of Saturnalia and Yule. (Christmas is, after all an abbreviation for “Christ Mass” just like Candlemas is for “Candle Mass.” Thus, if you want to keep Christ in Christmas you should be equally enthusiastic about keeping the Mass in it, too. Just sayin’.) But at any rate, the first version of the Candlemas/Groundhog Day myth held that, if the weather was fair and sunny on Candlemas Day, six more weeks of harsh weather could be expected. If it was cloudy and cold, the winter weather would break sooner. As our ancestors once could say by rote: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight; if Candlemas bring clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”

And again just like Christmas and Halloween, after the Reformation the celebration became secularized. The Germans first introduced an animal to the proceedings. Longstanding German tradition held that the perfect gauge for the weather on Candlemas Day was the badger. If it cast a shadow on February 2, a six-week cold, wet spell was assured afterward. German immigrants, not being able to find as many badgers in America as they had in the old country, simply appropriated the groundhog (“grundsow” in their language, though I prefer the old Appalachian term I heard growing up, “whistle pig”), which was about that season waking up from hibernation, as the best replacement available. Thus if the groundhog saw its shadow and ducked back into its hole… well, you know the rest. And so we have our contemporary holiday, still celebrated with more enthusiasm among the children of “Dutch” immigrants, especially around eastern Pennsylvania, than anywhere else.

How much, and how many, of our holidays do we acknowledge, knowing down deep that we can’t, and shouldn’t, take seriously most of what is claimed about them? Maybe the weight of our genes and genetics, along with longstanding custom, is enough to keep holidays alive, though renamed and reworked for meaning, all the way from the days of our ancient nature-worshiping pagan ancestors to modern times. Though I have a mild interest in the prediction of the country’s most famous groundhog, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, from year to year, I can pretty much take the day or leave it. That said, though, I celebrate my own private holiday in February, one I wish I were able to share fully with my friends and neighbors. I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that, however.

I’ve mentioned that my mother’s father lived in our house when I was growing up. His eyesight was terribly poor even at the time I was born, and though he gave me me a great deal of good advice both about school work and chicken raising,probably by the time I was eight years old he was completely blind. But I will never forget what he always found occasion to say in the month of February, even after his eyesight was gone: from the time of his earliest memories until the last, eighty-eighth, year of his life, he’d never seen a February pass without at least one evening of hearing the tree frogs, or spring peepers, sing. And so on that one first, in some years only, warm February day—no matter how cold a winter had been, he’d say, February always managed to borrow a bit from March—he’d sit on our front porch with me, enjoying the peep and chatter of the little tree frogs down along the creek bank and all through the trees around us. Let March 20 or 21 be the first day of spring, let the groundhog be right or wrong: for me, the tree-frog music of that February dusk, sitting in the porch swing with an old man I loved deeply, for me was the true marker of a new spring.

Rest in peace, Grandpa. A day never goes by without me thinking of something you taught me. The music of the tree frogs that I first shared alongside you lives on for another year, and one more renewal of life.

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