Every year on February 2, people all over North America wait for a rodent to decide the future.
This purely North American tradition is called Groundhog Day (the festival, not the movie). It’s based on the belief that on this day, the groundhog – which is actually a woodchuck – comes out of its hole to look for its shadow. If he sees his shadow, he ducks back into his hole, thus foretelling six more weeks of winter. If it’s a cloudy day, no shadow is seen and he behaves accordingly, staying above ground as if spring is near.
This weather prognostication owes its origin to the European tradition of Candlemas. It was said that a sunny Candlemas day would lead the winter to last for another six weeks.
An old English song says:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candelmas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.
Myths such as this one tie our present to the distant past when nature had a strong and lasting influence on people’s daily lives.
The Germans added the belief of an animal, originally a hedgehog, being frightened by his shadow. This belief was brought to North America during the 18th Century by the German settlers. As hedghogs are not native to North America, they choose the woodchuck instead.
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are large rodents, belonging to the group known as marmots. Close cousins the yellow-bellied and hoary marmots live in mountainous areas, but the woodchuck is widely distributed in North America. They are found as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Alabama.
Woodchucks are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation. Their self-dug burrows are dug below the frost line and remain at a stable temperature well above freezing during the cold winter months. To survive the winter, they are at their maximum weight just before entering hibernation. They emerge in the spring with some remaining body fat to live on, until the warm weather produces new plants.
For the woodchuck, timing his exit from the burrow is a matter of survival. For people across North America, his exit is either a matter of rejoicing that the harsh winter is over, or several days of complaining that we’re stuck with another six weeks of cold weather. And I just bet he’s not the least bit concerned about our feelings!