If I were naming a holiday for an animal, I might go with Giraffe Day. They’re elegant beasts, and I’ve felt a kinship with them since I was in high school. That’s when Tony Denny observed to everyone in earshot that I had a neck as long as a giraffe’s.
Or Zebra Day – is there a more beautiful creature than a zebra? If it had its own day, might it become a symbol of racial harmony or world peace?
And what about the cow, the face of all the world’s under-appreciated beings? Cows provide milk, leather, and cheeseburgers and manage to look content.
Instead, we have only the silly Groundhog Day, a faint echo of an argument that began with pagans in the late Stone Age. It could be worse. We could have ended up with Sacred Bear or Fighting-Mad Badger or even Hissing Serpent Day. They were early predecessors to the American groundhog in the dispute between conflicting folk calendars about the official first day of spring.
Still, from what I’ve observed, you wouldn’t want to name anything after a groundhog. Even if you dress it up for a dance and call it a woodchuck, it’s still homely, and it won’t win any prizes for personality either.
There’s no tactful way to put this – groundhogs look like a cross between a small pig and a large rat. Or a frankfurter on steroids that darts about on itty-bitty legs. And there is no such thing as a “pet” groundhog. They’re aggressive if cornered, flashing their huge incisors in a touch-me-at-your-own-risk attitude that would be at home in a back alley. Otherwise, they’re pretty much loners, introverts that avoid humans and even their own kind most of the time.
They thrive, of course, along with grass chiggers, on our Owen County farm, where their burrows occasionally undermine foundations or ponds. We can’t find any good use for them. I’ve heard of people who ate groundhogs, but apparently they did so only in times of duress like The Great Depression or a seven-year drought. I’m told they don’t taste like chicken.
Groundhogs themselves, however, have voracious appetites which may explain why they are perpetually dieting, eating mostly salad. They prefer it fresh, growing in your garden. One groundhog can munch through your entire season of effort in a single morning. (I should feel more empathy since I once had my name placed on the wall of a restaurant for being the first person in history to finish the “all you can eat” extra large mixed veggie salad and ask for more. But I don’t because – well, because we’re talking about groundhogs here, and have you met one?)
So how did such a critter rise to prominence in our Book of Days? Well, it was in the right place at the right time. Early European immigrants in America brought along their ancient dispute about the official first day of spring. When they looked around for an arbitrator – more on that in a moment - they noticed that the American groundhog has a slightly better disposition than hibernating bears, snakes, or fighting badgers. A star was born.
Historically, one group had contended that spring should be said to begin at Imbolc, about February 1st or 2nd. Imbolc falls halfway between the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) and the vernal equinox (when daylight and darkness become equal.) “Winter’s half over – yea!” described this point of view.
The other side argued that spring should be said to officially begin on the Vernal Equinox. This usually occurs between March 19th and 21st when the sun crosses the plane of the equator, and the day’s light and night’s darkness become equal all over the earth. “You dummies, this actually looks like spring,” defined the vernal equinox position.
As the centuries rolled by, folks mostly forgot why they were so passionate about this argument way back when, and reached an amusing compromise. Some years, spring would be said to begin at Imbolc – the beginning of February -- and some years it would be said to begin about six weeks later on the Vernal Equinox. Now, this could have been determined by an annual coin toss or arm wrestling. In the olden days, however, people thought it was more fun to wake up a hibernating animal and watch it pitch a fit. (Remember they did not have the Internet or cable TV.)
Their sense of humor extended to a wry nod to actual weather. Ironically, if it were sunny on February 2 and the animal saw its shadow, there would be six more weeks of winter. Thus, the Vernal Equinox group would win and spring would be said to begin in late March that year. If the weather were lousy, however, and the beastie did not see his shadow, those who insisted spring officially begins at Imbolc, the outset of February, won.
Over time, however, everyone forgot how all this foolishness got started, and in America at least, the lowly groundhog was elevated to the status of a meteorologist.
Thus, here in the 21th Century, with computer weather models out the wazoo, we continue to wake Punxsutawney Phil from his long nap every year for his opinion. This annual ritual played out in drizzle or shadows makes Bill Murray’s looping movie Groundhog Day almost make sense. I’m left to wonder, however, what arcane calendar rituals we may pass on to our descendants a few thousand years hence.
Will the ancient date of Super Bowl Sunday, with its 24-hour parties, beer and pretzels, mark the beginning of spring in a climate that has wandered off course?
Will the archaic traditions of March Madness (burning sofas in the street comes to mind) designate the end of winter in a thermostat controlled dome-covered earth?
Or will an uptown woodchuck, lean and fit on a diet of organic kale, continue to sally forth on Groundhog Day to make this call for the rest of eternity?
Copyright © February 2016 Georgia Green Stamper