The earliest record of groundhog weather predicting on February 2 is in the 1840s in the quiet German Amish communities of Pennsylvania, but certainly those quiet, reclusive folks were doing it decades before that.
So how did the use of groundhogs to predict weather begin?
February 2 is the feast of Candlemas. It is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That is, it is halfway between the beginning and end of winter. On that day in old Germany candles were blessed and put in windows. They symbolized bringing light into a world awakening from deep winter dormancy. Hedgehogs began to arouse from their hideaways at this time of year and folks, who were always looking for signs in nature, turned to them to see what they would do when emerging. In Germany, Candlemas (an English term) is called Maria Lichtmess, which means “Mass for Mary’s Light.” The German folk saying went:
Wenn’s an Lichtmess stürmt und schneit,
ist der Frühling nicht mehr weit;
Ist es aber klar und hell,
kommt der Lenz wohl nicht so schnell.
(If on Candlemas it storms and snows
then spring is not far away
But if it’s clear and bright,
then spring won’t come so quickly.)
Germans who came to Pennsylvania before the Revolution brought this folk custom with them, except that America had no hedgehogs, so groundhogs (woodchucks) replaced them.
The custom remained a local folk practice (superstition?) until—you guessed it!—media and tourists found out about it during a slow time of the year. You know the rest of the story. Punxsutawney Phil got promoted the most to become a national celebrity, but similar events occur throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other places where Germans settled. Some towns know how to make a fast buck from media attention!
Our German ancestors here in Jefferson City certainly brought this custom with them. I’ve heard about a few who used to light candles on February 2, and absolutely everyone knows about groundhogs and their ability to predict the next six weeks of weather.
But no local effort has ever been made to create our own “Jeff City Julius” to rival Punxsutawney Phil. (Julius is a traditional German name.)
How about it? Can we have—with the help of media—our own cute little fat and furry weather predictor on February 2 to bring attention to our wonderful city?
Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.