Extra - February 20, 2014
Otherwise known as Candlemas Day
By Philip Eden
One small indicator of the creeping americanisation of our popular culture is the media's growing obsession with Groundhog Day, which falls on February 2. This year brought several filmed news reports on television, a glut of radio interviews, and a handful of newspaper features. The popular Hollywood film of the same name, released over 20 years ago, has no doubt contributed to this.
This 'ancient' tradition - I suppose a 128-year tradition is quite ancient in American eyes - claims that if the groundhog should see his shadow when he emerges from his burrow on this particular date, then severe wintry weather will last another six weeks; if his shadow is not visible then winter is over.
The Americans, of course, market their traditions much more effectively than we do on this side of the Atlantic. So it may come as a surprise to Europeans as well as to Americans that Groundhog Day is a mere spin-off of truly ancient European weather lore which originated many centuries ago.
In the church calendar February 2 is Candlemas Day, when candles are lit to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary. Advice about the weather and the seasons handed down the generations by word of mouth were generally linked to prominent dates in the calendar - to make them easier to remember. The use of rhyming couplets helped too. A whole tranche of weather lore became attached to Candlemas Day, typically warning that winter is certainly not over yet even though the days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher in the sky.
Thus from the English tradition we have:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have a second flight;
But if Candlemas Day brings clouds and rain
Winter's gone and won't come again.
And from Scotland:
If Candlemas Day be bright and clear,
There'll be two winters in the year.
The idea of animals helping to predict the sequence of weather comes mainly but not exclusively from continental Europe, and it is likely that this was exported to the American colonies by German-speaking settlers during the 19th century. This old saying from Germany bears a striking resemblance to present-day American version:
The badger peeps from his hole on Candlemas Day and when he finds snow he walks abroad, but if he sees the sun shining he returns to his slumbers.
I prefer the French lore which in translation goes something like this:
At the Feast of Candlemas,
Frost in the air and snow on the grass;
But if the sun should entice the bear from his den,
He'll turn round thrice then he'll go back in again.
So next year let us please have a little less about Groundhog Day and a little more about Candlemas.
By Philip Eden