Monday, February 02, 2009

Contemplation on Groundhogs

About the least original topic on which I could write on this day would be groundhogs. Anyone who has lived in Pennsylvania has heard of groundhogs. And, many people outside of Pennsylvania have also heard of groundhogs. Here' s a New York resident who has heard of them.

In my somewhat running battle with local television news, I have never addressed the topic of groundhogs. I don't even need to turn on local news today to know exactly what the top story will be today. . .well, maybe the story will be that the Steelers won 6th Super Bowl. BUT after that story, the news will talk inanely about groundhogs.

There will be a report from Punxsutawney, and one from Octoraro--each featuring a groundhog held aloft, blinking miserably at all these crazy humans holding it. I think the one groundhog is real, and the other is . . .well, stuffed. Rather like the plot of the movie "Groundhog Day" the predictable repetition of this story gets old.

I have nothing against groundhogs. In fact, I quite like them. Today's The Writer's Almanac adds to my store of knowledge about Groundhog Day. Frankly, the information here has NEVER been used on the local television reporting of this day. And the information is fascinating.

Groundhog Day is yet another day where a Celtic celebration--Imbolc--morphed into, or was appropriated by the Catholic Church. The holiday became Candlemas Day, the celebration of the day when the infant Jesus was presented at the temple, 40 days after birth. Garrison Keillor referenced an old English saying about Candlemas:
If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
But if Candlemas day bring clouds and rain,
Winter is gone and won't come again.

The weather observations of February 2 become clear, but how do we get to Groundhog Day? Well, apparently Europeans had a tradition on this day of observing wild animals and their behavior to see if winter was drawing to a close. They particularly liked to observe badgers, which are all but non-existent in Pennsylvania (only 4 sited here since 1946). But, let me tell you, there are LOADS of groundhogs. Apparently, an enterprising German immigrant living in Pennsylvania made the transposition.

Herewith a quote from Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac:

German immigrants in Pennsylvania found that there weren't a lot of badgers in America, but there were a lot of groundhogs, so the holiday evolved into Groundhog Day. The first reference to Groundhog Day is from 1841, in the diary of a storekeeper in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. He wrote: "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."

And thus was begun a seemingly never-ending tradition here in Pennsylvania.

Now me and my affinity for groundhogs. Several years ago, I journeyed to the house of a local pastor, and his wife--also an ordained minister--for a church meeting. As I drove over the lovely back roads in central PA, I was struck with an unshakable sense of having been on that road before.

And I knew exactly when. While I was in high school, I had a one time date with a young man, whose grandparents owned a horse farm on that road I traveled several decades later. We went horse-back riding--please know I am NOT an accomplished rider--and as we rode along in the open field, we were having a pleasant getting-to-know-you conversation. Suddenly, the young man pulled up his horse, jumped off, and went running across the field. From a nearby barn, he grabbed a baseball bat, and proceeded to bludgeon a groundhog to death.

I know horse owners can despise groundhogs for their penchant of digging holes that a horse can step into and come up lame. BUT--really--killing a groundhog on a first date? A bit over the top. Do I have to add I never saw the young man again?

Since then I have enjoyed observing groundhogs. I find their slow undulation across a grassy space almost comical. I delight in their popping their heads up suddenly to peer around. I do not, however, take their weather prognostications as having any soundness. So, if it's OK, I will tune out on Groundhog Day to local news coverage.


possumlady said...

Wow, this was great! Thanks for the history lesson. I've always thought of Groundhog Day as a very sweet, quaint tradition, BUT, I, like you, hate to see that poor groundhog hauled out of his hole and held up to the camera flashes and noise. Poor thing!

My God what a first date! I think I would have been traumatized and asked to be taken home if I saw something like that. I've only seen two in the further outer suburbs around here and was excited each time to see one.

NCmountainwoman said...

Nice post. You are right...PA is dominating the "news" today. It's either the Steelers or Punxsutawner Phil.

NCmountainwoman said...

Oops, meant to have a "Y" on the end.

Dog_geek said...

Good heavens! That certainly tops any of my worst first dates! I can't imagine!

Ruth said...

So those settlers who came to Ontario from Pennsylvania in the early 19th century brought the groundhog traditions with them. Wiarton Willie is a famous local celebrity, an albino groundhog at that.

mon@rch said...

Thanks for the link . . this has to be one of the best holidays of the year . . besides Dingus day!

Anvilcloud said...

I didn't even realize it was that day. I wonder what Wiarton Willy thought? There is a road in Ottawa where I once saw groundhogs galore poking their noses out on both banks, surveying the traffic.

RuthieJ said...

I think we call them Woodchucks here in Minnesota and they aren't very popular with some people here either. I've never seen one in my yard, but sometimes out in the woods when I'm deer hunting. They're an interesting critter and fun to watch.

JeanMac said...

Poor animal and poor you on a first date with a "wild young man" - interesting post.

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

Oh, dear! That was a weird first date, wasn't it?

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

The Ontario groundhog is Wiarton Willie. It is an Albino groundhog. One year it died just before the day. They set it up and let on it was still alive. By the the next year they had another.

Wiarton is a small town at the base of the Bruce Peninsula.

Cathy said...

I'd heard one other story similar to your account of that bludgeoning. I wonder that we can be part of the same species. I would have to have starving children to do that or know that the creature was going to harm someone.

Sad. Sad. Sad.

Yet again - I know I have the luxury of packaged meat in my local supermarket.

Oh, the dilemmas.