Here on sunny Cape Cod, there is a joke about the four seasons. We have “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”. And I thought I moved here for the balmy 70° weather, where a gentle breeze sways the coconut palms.
Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has blinked and stretched and peered out across the frozen, windswept tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.
The ancient Romans observed their mid-season festival on February 5, the pagan Irish on February 1. For Christians, it was February 2, Candlemas day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ritual purification of Mary. For reasons which are not entirely clear, early Christians believed that there would be six more weeks of winter if the sun came out on Candlemas Day.
Clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, their length representing how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on the idea by selecting an animal, a hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once a suitable number of Germans had come to America, they switched over to a more local rodent: Marmota Monax. The common Groundhog.
Groundhogs hibernate for the winter, an ability which some people I know would like to possess. During that time, their heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to 5, and they live off their stored body fat. Another ability some of us would appreciate, very much.
The male couldn’t care less about the weather; he comes out of his burrow in February in search of a mate. If uninterrupted, he will fulfill his groundhog mission of love and return to earth, not coming out for good until sometime in March.
But then there is the amorous woodchuck’s worst nightmare in a top hat, a fiendish apparition known as the groundhog hunter.
In 1887, there was a group of groundhog hunters in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, imaginatively calling themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887, that their groundhog “Phil” was the only True weather forecasting rodent.
There are those who would dispute the Gobbler’s Knob crowd and their claims to Punxsutawney Phil’s weather forecasting prowess. Alabama has “Birmingham Bill”, and Canada has Shubenacadie Sam. New York can’t seem to decide between Staten Island Chuck and New York City’s very own official groundhog, “Pothole Pete”.
It appears that there is no word for groundhog in Arabic. Accounts of this day in the Arab press translate the word as جرذ الأرض., or, “Ground Rat”. Pretty exciting to learn that. Thanks al Jazeera.
If anyone was to bend down and ask Mr. Ground Rat his considered opinion on the matter, he would probably cast a pox on all our houses. It’s been a long winter. Mr. Ground Rat’s all dressed up for a date. He has other things on his mind.