The Mysteries of Groundhog Day Unveiled

24-Jan-2005 10:30 AM EST

Colgate University

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Newswise — "Slow-moving squat and fat animals that most often end up as messy road kill," is the description applied to groundhogs by Anthony Aveni, Colgate professor and author of "The Book of the Year " A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays." Images of the animal flash across television screens and appear in newspapers across the country Feb. 2 when legend has it that the groundhog forecasts the next six weeks' weather. In his book, Aveni explains the origins of Groundhog Day and how the animal came to hog the limelight and displace weather forecasters for a day. In North America, the groundhog was adopted as weatherman in the 1800s. "First popularized by a late 19th-century western Pennsylvania newspaper editor, the archetypal omen-bearing groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, has his magical imitators, among them Canada's Wiarton Willy, Ohio's Buckeye Chuck, and western New York's Dunkirk Dave. Georgians have conjured up a fat fellow named General Beauregard Lee, while Virginians have Rebel Robert. The gender-blind, species-bending state of Indiana boasted Henrietta until she died a few years back and was replaced by Hilary the Hedgehog." Aveni says Groundhog Day can be traced back to the Romans' celebration of the return of light. They regarded February (the name comes from februa, to purify) as "a time of cleansing in preparation for a fresh start," according to Aveni. The connection to the Hebrew tradition that required mothers to be purified in the temple 40 days after giving birth is clear, Aveni says. Mary was purified on Feb. 2, 40 days after Jesus's birth, establishing the day as the purification of the Virgin. "The idea of a February feast of purification follows the old Roman traditions, probably deliberately," surmises Aveni. Lighting candles was part of the purification celebration and resulted in the celebration later being called Candlemas, a festival of lights and the return of spring. Early Germans created the first link between this time of new light and weather predictions. A Candlemas prediction clearly establishing the link to modern-day Groundhog Day proclaims: The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and when he find it's snowing, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into the hole. "Driven by the need to see the future, we select a date during this cold, light-deprived month to express our faith in the predictive power of an animal " which explains why legions of media representatives will be standing in anticipation outside a hole in the ground on Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania," Aveni concludes.

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