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The Medieval Origins of Groundhog Day

Depending on what century your mind lives in, today, February 2, is either Groundhog Day or Candlemas.

Two inches of wet snow fell last night and the temperature is supposed to plummet as the day goes on. Ergo that two inches of snow would turn to concrete if it not removed pretty darn speedy pronto quick. Rats.

As The Hunter and I cleared the driveway, the sky was gray – going from a deeper gray in the southeast to a lighter gray, almost luminous, in the northwest. The clouds were more like fog than clouds, and there were no shadows, or color for that matter – anywhere on the ground.  We were working away in an Ansel Adams photograph. 

Good, I thought. There is no way Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. We will have an early spring and so be done with this snow nonsense.

Back in the house for a restoring cup of tea, I checked the news and it turns out that that rat bastard of a groundhog did in fact see his shadow and so “they” say we are in for six more weeks of winter.

I can assure you that here in New England, conditions were such that no self-respecting local groundhog saw even a glimmer of his shadow. This raises the question of why I, or anyone for that matter, should take the word of some foreign, and probably feckless, groundhog as gospel. So much for the modern admonition that we need to think for ourselves and “find our own truth.”

February 2 also happens to be Candlemas – a feast commemorating the infant Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Candlemas has been celebrated since the early days of the Church. Interestingly, medieval farmers were also very attentive to the weather on February 2.

Candlemas was the soft start of the medieval farming season. Some early field prep was beginning; the lambs were coming and the farmers were busy trying to calculate just how soon the real work would begin. Their target was Lady Day (March 25), six weeks away. They needed to “staff up,” but when? The weather on Candlemas was their rough guide.

Cloudy weather meant that on the whole, the temperatures were getting warmer and the ground would be softening nicely in time for planting come Lady Day. Sunny weather meant that without a protective covering of clouds, the earth would cool dramatically at night. The ground would stay frozen longer, and most likely the Lady Day planting would be delayed.

Like any employer, medieval farmers were interested in securing the best talent and waiting too late might mean all the good workers would be snapped up. On the other hand, hiring too early could put a farmer in a difficult financial position. So what to do? Without the National Weather Service, satellites and radar, or even foreign groundhogs to guide them, they made their predictions using their own common sense and the weather on Candlemas.

February may be way too early in the northeast to begin any gardening chores; still we can look back at the medieval origins of Groundhog Day and use our own eyes to decide when we think that spring might, just maybe, make an appearance. Here’s to medieval common sense and to heck with foreign groundhogs!

February as depicted in the Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry; The Limbourg Brothers, ca. 1410


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