Deep in a snowless, gray winter, clamped in bitter cold, it's reasonable to ask: What groundhog would be fool enough to think that spring is less than six weeks away? Why are we even thinking about spring on the 2nd of February? Where did this Groundhog Day nonsense come from?
Groundhog Day sounds all-American, but it's really a collision of European tradition and American reality. Its roots stretch far back, beyond the coming of European settlers to this continent and the coming of Christianity to Europe.
The cycles of the life-giving sun were crucial to ancient people all over the world, and the lengthening of the days was especially important toward the end of the dark winters of northern Europe. Feb. 2 happens to be just about halfway between the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, when the sun seems at its lowest ebb, and the vernal equinox, when day and night are equal.
Many years ago, around what we now call the beginning of February, people in what we now call Germany and England were heartened to notice signs of change: green sprouts, pregnant lambs, birds nesting. They connected the coming of new life to the growing presence of the sun. But then as now, weather happened, and sometimes there would be weeks more of cold, rain, ice and snow.
With no Doppler radar or computer weather forecasting models, people hankering for spring eagerly watched for signs that hibernating animals were waking up. Fearful traditions developed that if those animals — badgers in Germany, hedgehogs in England — emerged to a too-sunny day and saw their shadows, they would be frightened back into their burrows, a bad omen for more winter weather.
It was all about the sun. Its light and warmth were increasing, but sometimes that power took longer to banish winter. The pre-Christian Celts lit fires to welcome and encourage the sun in a festival called Imbolc around Feb. 2. Once Christianity arrived in northern Europe, Imbolc was superseded by the festival of Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas, which involved lighting many candles. But Medieval Christians still kept an eye on those sleepyhead animals and the sky.
An old English song goes:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
German settlers in Pennsylvania seem to have been the ones who, having left the traditional animals behind in Europe, enlisted the groundhog, aka woodchuck or whistlepig, to play the critter part at Candlemas in America.
The problem always has been that American winters, especially for settlers who pushed on into the Midwest, tend to be harsher and longer than in England or Germany. Northern groundhogs usually still are hibernating Feb. 2, which is why Groundhog Day celebrations (devised as a stunt by a 19th century Pennsylvania newspaper editor) involve making a lot of noise to wake up the groundhog. No wonder he's usually cranky and ducks back into his crate.
But what has not required an adjustment in attitude is the sun. Its unchanging cycle rolls on into the year. Cold as it may be, days are getting longer. More sunlight reaches the soil.
Some plants, following habits from far away, like those German settlers, heed the sun and sprout early. Often they are bulbs such as snowdrops, native to mountain parts of Europe and western Asia, where winters are cold, but weather is not as erratic as in the wild heart of the U.S. Daffodils and crocuses often sprout foliage in late winter warm spells, only to be dashed by the next hard freeze.
Native Midwestern plants such as the early woodland wildflowers — bloodroot, spring beauty, hepatica — rarely sprout too early. Like groundhogs, they evolved in this variable climate and they maintain a margin of safety. Climate change is bringing earlier springs, on average, and the crazy 80-degree March 2012 still is a vivid memory. But the changing climate also is expected to bring even more erratic weather, swinging in all directions. So the native plants may still have the edge.
To native Midwesterners, for whom Feb. 2 is the middle of winter rather than the half-heard herald of spring, a bright, sunny Groundhog Day with toe-freezing cold can seem a bitter mockery.
Yet a gardener who looks closely can see flower buds beginning to swell on redbud and forsythia branches. Pull away the sheltering mulch for just a moment, and sprouts are to be seen.
Groundhogs may still be sacked out underground, but in the bare treetops, squirrels are raising pups in their nests of leaves.
Life really is beginning to stir in the growing presence of the sun, and there really is something to celebrate.