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The European Origin of Groundhog Day

Updated on January 13, 2018
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Sometimes, it seems that our lives revolve around the holidays rather than some ordinary job or mundane career that we might have.

On Groundhog Day

On Groundhog Day the groundhog delivers a message to the human population
On Groundhog Day the groundhog delivers a message to the human population | Source

Groundhog Day in America

The basic premise of Groundhog Day, February 2nd, is very simple. If the groundhog comes out of his bungalow and sees his shadow, then there will be a long winter and so he returns to his shelter. If by chance the groundhog does not see his shadow, then the winter season will come to an end, early, and the groundhog can remain above ground. In other words, Groundhog Day folklore is one of reverse consequences.

However, if we trace Groundhog Day back to its European origin, we lose most of these philosophical overtones, for it is likely that this unusual holiday may have, in part, originated from the Mid-winter festivities of the Celts, Gaels and Druids.

Saint Brigid

Saint Brigid is an Irish Saint, sometimes honored on September 1.
Saint Brigid is an Irish Saint, sometimes honored on September 1. | Source

Saint Brigid's Day

Coincidentally, there is an ancient Gaelic and Celtic holiday that lands about the same time as Groundhog Day. It's called Imbolc, Imbolg or Saint Brigid's Day and like most pagan mid season celebrations, the festivities involved much feasting, drinking, bonfires and merrymaking. Official date for Saint Brigid is February first, as the festival appears to quite old, having been recorded in Irish texts as Imbolc or Imbolg and dating back thousands of years.

By the way, in ancient times, this holiday would have been one of the four major pagan celebrations that occurred halfway between a solstice and an equinox. The other three being Beltane (May Day), Samhain (Halloween) and Lughnasadh (Midsummer).

What Is Candlemas?

On February 2, Christians of many different denominations will flock to their place of worship for a very special occasion. No, they are aren't consulting an overfed rodent for long term weather forecasts. In fact, they are to there to honor the day when the Virgin Mary first took the infant Jesus to the temple. Many Christians believe that Mary would have waited 40 days, as a purification rite, before entering temple. And that's why Candlemas occurs 40 days after Christmas.

Since Candlemas Day occurred in mid winter, there also developed an European folklore tradition, which stated that a sunny day spelled more winter weather, while a cloudy day meant spring conditions would soon arrive. If you read the following Old English verse, it is not hard to see the European origins of Groundhog Day.

Old English Verse About Candlemas Day

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

Queen Elizabeth and Candlemas

Recently, there was an article about the Queen of England, not taking down the Christmas decorations until the first week of February. Although she stated it was to honor her father, King George VI, who passed away on February 6, 1952, the date just misses Candlemas, which is the time, when many European families choose to take down the mistletoe. Perhaps, the queen is kindly following this common custom or maybe she is secretly channeling, Imbolg, the old Gaelic Midwinter fiesta, which also occurred in the first week of February.

The Groundhog Club in Action

Attendance at the Punxsatawney Groundhog Day festivities has grown immensely in recent years
Attendance at the Punxsatawney Groundhog Day festivities has grown immensely in recent years | Source

Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

If you've ever seen the movie Groundhog Day, you are probably familiar with the cluster of overly dressed gentlemen running around a small, Pennsylvania town, called Punsxatawney, on a cold, snowy February day. This is not a one time movie stunt, for these fellows, known as the Inner Circle of the Punxsatawney Groundhog Club have been doing this since 1877. It is from this peculiar event that the American holiday evolved and not the other way around.

And by the way, in Europe, it was the hedgehog and not the groundhog that eventually delivered the February weather verdict for the remaining winter season. So when German immigrants arrived in PA, all they did was substitute the groundhog for their old faithful climate advisor, hedgehog.

Origins of Groundhog Day in America

Groundhog Day, the Movie

In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day was released. With Bill Murray at the height of his career, the film did reasonably well, but the over the years, this movie has grown in cultural esteem and appreciation and is now often considered one of the better comedies of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the movie is often shown on Groundhog Day and even run consecutively, to mimic the storyline of the strange American tale.

Basically, the movie is about a news reporter, Phil Connors, played by Murray, who keeps waking up only to find that the date is always February 2 and has not changed overnight.

About the Movie, Groundhog Day

Slang from the Groundhog Movie

Today, the impact of the movie is strong enough to influence contemporary military and urban slang. For example, if the same thing keeps happening to you over and over again, you might say that it is just like Groundhog Day.

And if you are in the military and find yourself being deployed to the same war zone, over and over again (i.e. Iraq or Afghanistan), then a comparison to Groundhog Day may be in order.


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