This Week’s Creature Feature ... Disturbing the Groundhogs’ Peace
February 2 is halfway through winter, so what better time to gather with friends and neighbors to eat good food, drink heartily and look ahead to the coming spring?
The Pennsylvania Dutch descendants of German immigrants did just that. Among the first celebrants of Groundhog Day, they partied hardy in Punxsutawney, Penn., as far back as 1887.
This midway mark between winter solstice and spring equinox is a significant day in traditions far more ancient. The Celts celebrated it as Imbolc, a pagan festival marking the beginning of spring. As Christianity spread through Europe, Imbolc evolved into Candlemas, a feast commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem.
Some European Christians believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow. Germans developed their own take on the legend, pronouncing the day sunny only if badgers and other animals glimpsed their own shadows.
When German immigrants settled Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the custom with them, choosing the native groundhog as the annual forecaster.
Regional scarcities of groundhogs have led to other unlikely substitutes in different parts of the country.
While Punxsutawney Phil looks for his shadow in Pennsylvania, T-Boy will emerge from a hole at the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit at the Audubon Zoo to make his own prediction about the arrival of spring in New Orleans. T-Boy — whose name means little boy among Cajuns — is a nutria, a type of semiaquatic rodent best known hereabouts for damaging wetlands with its feeding habits.
At the Houston Zoo, Penelope and Olivia, two Guinea hogs, a rare breed of pig, are expected to make a weather prediction by choosing between a blue ball, representing six more weeks of winter, and a beach ball, representing an early spring.
Punxsutawney Phil has age and wisdom over these alternates. According to legend, he is more than 125 years old.
“Groundhogs are true hibernators,” says Peter Jayne, Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ associate director for Game Management. But when a winter is mild, they go in and out of hibernation.
When groundhogs wake up hungry, watch for them along the roadside, where they lick salt particles left over from snow and ice removal. Unfortunately, that temptation also contributes to their demise.
Yet they are colonizing more of Maryland each year.
“We don’t know why, but we’ve slowly seen them move into the lower Eastern Shore counties.” said Jayne. “Older people who have never seen them before are seeing them now.”