Tomorrow, as poor Punxsutawney Phil is hoisted into the air to divine our future weather, you might find yourself wondering how on earth this became a “thing”. The modern Groundhog Day holiday is based on ancient celebrations of the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, prompted by the early signs of spring. But the holiday’s origins are much weirder than that, and they involve a wood-gathering witch, a Roman hedgehog, and a whole lot of candles.
Historically, the beginning of February was a time for celebrating the coming spring, fertility, and rebirth. As animals begin to get ready for birthing and farmers prepared for the growing season, people developed elaborate rituals to secure a fruitful spring. In Celtic Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, the second day of February was known as Imbolc, and as the days started to get longer, spring crops emerged and livestock began producing milk for the youngsters to come, and people would hold massive feasts to usher in the changing season. At night, people would light candles in their windows or huge bonfires outside to represent the return of warmth and strong sunlight, and some would engage in purification rituals involving fire to symbolize rebirth.
On Imbolc eve, the Celtic fertility goddess Brighid was said to travel from home to home like a sort of springtime St. Nick, granting blessings to virtuous inhabitants while they slept. People even left milk and food for Brighid as she went about her travels. The goddess was believed to to have the power to shift the season from the months of darkness to the months of light, and people would light candles to symbolize this.
During this time the winter hag known as Cailleach gathered her firewood for the coming winter days. Legend has it that if winter was to last a long time yet, she would make the day bright so that she could locate the best firewood. If winter was going to end soon and Cailleach had no need to find wood, she would make the day gloomy and dark. Many people also watched for serpents and burrowing animals to emerge from their holes for the spring thaw and, if they did, it was a sure sign of a short winter. A Scottish Gaelic poem illustrated the tradition (Bríde, of course = Brighid):
The serpent will come from the hole,
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow,
On the flat surface of the ground.
As Christianity began to spread in the British Isles, the traditions of Imbolc and the Goddess Brigit was gradually syncretized into Catholic Saint Brigid and the Catholic holiday “Candelmas”. It is thought that the Saint Brigid was intentionally described to have the same characteristics of the Goddess Brighid, which is why Saint Brigid is, perhaps not coincidentally, the patron saint of midwives, dairy, babies, and farmers. Saint Brigid is honored every year on February first, followed by Candlemas on the second, which is celebrated with—you guessed it—candles.
These ancient Imbolc traditions carried over to the medieval Catholic holiday of Candlemas. It was believed that bright weather on Candlemas meant more bad weather to come (just like that witch Cailleach!). People believed that ground-dwelling animals like bears, badgers, and hedgehogs could predict coming weather, so when animals came out of their burrows and caves to sniff the air to determine the forecast, it was an omen of gloom if they cast a shadow. No shadow indicated that winter was waning. A traditional Candlemas poem showcases this same idea of sunny weather being a bad omen:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Then Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come not again.
So where does the groundhog come into all of this? Well, Romans, like many of their compadres around Europe believed that the weather in the early days of February could help predict the forecast, and to help with this soothsaying, Romans turned to hedgehogs for guidance. This tradition was carried throughout much of Europe and into Germany, and eventually travelled to the United States via German immigrants. But, since hedgehogs aren’t native to Pennsylvania and there weren’t many other hibernating, burrowing animals around, German immigrants settling in Pennyslvania took up the groundhog as their prognosticator. Add to that a sprinkle of Celtic witches and goddesses, a few ancient animal superstitions, and voila: you have yourself the modern Groundhog Day.
It’s worth noting, however, that whatever his origins, a groundhog is a pretty terrible predictor of weather. Right now, Punxsutawney Phil is batting less than 40 percent accuracy, prompting the question: is it time to retire Phil?