By Gary Becker
A marvelous little celebration occurs on Saturday, Feb. 2, where a feted groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, in Punxsutawney, PA, is going to predict whether winter is over or the season of cold will extend to the vernal equinox. P-Phil will speak to his top hat handler in a language known as “groundhogese,” a word absent from the dictionary, to convey his sentiments on the seasonal adjustments.
If conditions are gloomy on Feb. 2, and Phil does not see his shadow at daybreak, an early spring is at hand. If, however, the sun is shining and Phil observes his stretched silhouette, the cold will continue for another six weeks.
The link between astronomy and Groundhog Day is actually straightforward. We have four major seasons occurring during a year, each separated by three months. It is no coincidence that Christmas and Easter became religious holidays near the start of two of these special times.
While pagan Rome was celebrating the passing of the low sun at winter solstice and the promise of a new planting and harvesting season, the Saturnalia, early Christians masked their observance of Christ’s birth during the hoopla.
Likewise, pagan festivals which celebrated the victory of light over darkness at the time of the vernal equinox were perfect for rejoicing about Christ’s victory over the darkness of death. Also important were the midpoints between the seasons known as cross-quarter days that anticipated these changes.
Groundhog Day was one of them, and it is a throwback to the burrowing badgers of Europe. They could determine whether spring was at hand by examining the root structures of trees and plants. In America, groundhogs became an apt substitute.
Earlier, the Celts celebrated this date when ewes started lactating as spring’s rebirth. Two other cross-quarter days significant in Western culture are May Day and Halloween. Yes, astronomy is everywhere in our traditions.