Groundhogs are far from the first beasts to have their hibernation schedules put to use by people who predict the weather. In fact, their role in divining how much winter there is left is a relatively recent development. As far as most people in Europe are concerned, the term Groundhog Day is merely a reference to a particularly good movie starring Bill Murray, and all the other gubbins about Punxsutawney Phil was merely a series of colorful inventions to serve the plot. To discover that any of that stuff is actually based on a real tradition and a real animal is, for Europeans, akin to finding out that there once was a genuine supernatural attack on New York that had to be thwarted by four guys with proton packs.
That’s partly because there aren’t any native groundhogs in Europe, and partly because those traditions that do echo Groundhog Day have faded from use, leaving a certain amount of hearsay and the feeble claim that February 2 is also Hedgehog Day, as if that’s the same thing.
First and foremost, it’s important to say hedgehog day isn’t really a thing. There was a tradition in Germany, based on some ancient Roman superstitions, that invoked a hibernating badger, wolf or bear to help predict how the last six weeks of winter would go. According to Don Yoder’s history of Groundhog Day, this concept was taken to Pennsylvania by German settlers and the mystical powers transferred from badgers to groundhogs. Hedgehogs, who tend to hibernate until early March, are a bit less prominent in the myth.
That’s not to say there is no tradition of hopeful weather prediction around this time. February 2 is also Candlemas in the Christian calendar (in Welsh it’s Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau, or “Mary’s Festival of the Candles”), and there’s a traditional rhyme in the U.K that goes:
“If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
Winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again.”
In case you’re wondering, I’m based in England, and I’ve just checked out of the window, where it’s overcast, but dry. Just like a British summer!
Then there’s the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, which begins on February 1, and it’s believed to have done so (with certain variations based on calendars and whatnot) since neolithic times. Imbolc was originally associated with the coming of the goddess Brigid, later Christianized as Saint Brigid. Amid the traditional feasts, a spare bed would be made up for her arrival, and some food and drink left out, and clothes for her to bless. While Brigid herself is not said to predict the weather, it’s clear that her arrival is the first inkling that winter is on the wane, and the time for the rebirth of spring is about to start. Those offerings are to secure good fortune, which also means good weather.
But what of the poor hedgehog in all this? What’s his or her role apart from snuffling around in leaves and looking cute?
Well, there is one tale in which a hedgehog has a direct impact on the weather, and it comes from Bulgaria. The sun, it is said, once arranged to marry the moon, and all of creation attended the wedding except the hedgehog. When the sun went off to find the spiny absentee, he was found chewing on a stone. The sun asked why he would do such a thing, and the hedgehog said: “I am learning to eat stones. Once you marry, you’ll have many sun children born to you, and when they all shine in the sky, everything will burn, and there will be nothing to eat”.
At this, the Sun called off the wedding and all life on Earth was spared.
Beat that, Punxsutawney Phil!
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