Here on sunny Cape Cod, there is a joke about the four seasons. We have “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”.
Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen 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 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 was expected to 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 held in great envy by some people I know. 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 date. 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. The groundhog hunter.
In 1887, a group of Pennsylvania groundhog hunters took to calling themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887: you could search far and wide but 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”. North Carolinians look to “Queen Charlotte” and “Sir Walter Wally”, while Georgia folks can take their choice between “Gus” the Groundhog and “General Beauregard Lee”.
Since the eponymously named Bill Murray film from 1993, nothing seems to rise to the appropriate level of insanity, more than Groundhog Day drinking games. For the seasoned Groundhog enthusiast, “beer breakfasts” welcome the end of winter, across the fruited plain. If you’re in the Quaker state, you can attend the Groundhog day “Hawaiian Shirt Beer Breakfast”, at Philadelphia’s own Grey Lodge Public House. If you’re in Des Moines, stop by the The High Life Lounge, where free Miller High Life beers will be served from 6am, to eleven. And for the late sleeper, there is the annual screening of the Bill Murray Masterpiece, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Beer Dinner.
Fun fact: Bill Murray was bitten not once but twice, by the groundhog used on the set.
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. “Ground Rat”. I was pretty excited to learn that, thank you 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 their houses. Starting with the guy in the top hat. It’s been a long winter, and Mr. Ground Rat’s dressed up for a date. He has other things on his mind.