For early immigrants, Candlemass was an English religious festival celebrated on Feb. 2, but not necessarily for its religious significance. To quote their jingle: “If Candlemass Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fright; but if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”
We, of course, await this day in America under the new name of Groundhog Day. On Feb. 2, or groundhog comes at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Superstition centuries ago held that if the weather was fair on this day, the second half of Winter would be stormy and cold. It was a custom on Candlemass Day in Europe for the clergy to bless candles and distribute them to Christians in the dark of Winter.
As the story goes, a lighted candle was placed in each window of the homes. The day’s weather was of course important. If the sun came out on Candlemass day it would mean six more weeks of wintry weather. If the sun made an appearance on Candlemass Day, an animal would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of winter. The Germans watched a badger for his shadow. In Pennsylvania, the groundhog in the 1800s, upon waking from mid-Winter hibernation was chosen to be the replacement.
So now this furry little animal, which is also known as a woodchuck and is a member of the squirrel family, was elevated to weather prognosticator supreme. He now rates with the American Bald Eagle and Easter rabbit as being important American symbols. The first official celebration of Groundhog Day in America began on Feb. 2, 1886.
The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil; Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” and his home town thus became called the “Weather Capitol of the World.” His debut performance: no shadows - early Spring. So after celebrating Groundhog Day for the past 123 years, what is our adorable little groundhog’s record for accurate weather forecasting?
From 1892, when records first started being recorded, he has seen his shadow 97 times. He has not seen his shadow 13 times during this 123 year period. There were seven years at the beginning of the tradition when no records were kept. So bottom line, how accurate is our furry little friend’s weather forecasting?
Well the truth is, Phil’s seasonal forecasting accuracy is somewhat low. His weather predictions have been correct only 39 percent of the time. Today however, Feb. 2, 2010, we will await his appearance and know if an early spring might be awaiting us.
(Taylor is a Carroll County resident and local forester.)