Groundhog Day sounds like a joke, and it usually is. What kind of holiday is named after a rodent named after a pig? There’s little that’s noble about the groundhog, a nervous, sneaky animal that chews up the wiring in people’s cars and decimates gardens when our backs are turned. To mark a major turn of the annual wheel—the change of the seasons from winter to spring—through the character of a cowardly woodchuck is odd at best, but that’s American pop culture for you.
As it happens, my mother grew up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and all three of her sisters still live there. We made regular pilgrimages when I was growing up. It’s a humble town, far less picturesque than it looks in the Bill Murray movie, and there are garish groundhog statues prominently placed around the hollowed-out business district. I remember one of my aunts showing me a tiny groundhog carved on her high school class ring.
I’ve never witnessed the ritual firsthand, but Groundhog Day in Punxsy (as all the locals call it) centers on a hilltop called Gobbler’s Knob. It involves a clandestine society of groundhog handlers, who put the rodent in the hole in the wee hours of the morning and coax it back out, to see its shadow or not, according to a predetermined script. The handlers wear tuxedos and top hats and preside over a gathering of the inebriated. The rest of the year, Punxsutawney Phil lives in the public library, where you can observe him through a big plate-glass window.
All this is so banal it was easily overwhelmed in the national psyche by the aforementioned movie, which managed to upend the whole notion of time that underpins the holiday. Instead of cyclical time that moves in graceful circles, “Groundhog Day” is now synonymous with time that stutters unnaturally, causing distress and confusion.
But cyclical time is really what it’s all about. Just as we’ve pushed the deep pagan roots of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween below the surface, we’ve forgotten that this time of year has been a holiday, a time observed in ritual, for centuries.
The date of Groundhog Day, February 2, nearly coincides with a date that was significant in Ireland even in Neolithic times, when certain tombs were built to align with the sunrise on that date. Later, February 1 came to be celebrated with a Gaelic tradition called Imbolc, which falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In other words, it’s the time when winter is half over and people start to believe spring may actually come again—something well worth marking in a world where winter means meager food and a true battle with cold.
Imbolc, known as St. Brigid’s Day in Christian times, involved special feasts and fires, and the holiday also had an aspect of divination—predicting the weather based on the behavior of animals. German-speaking parts of Europe maintained similar customs around Candlemas, a feast day falling on February 2; in those places, badgers were the animal thought to indicate the early or late arrival of spring. There was an urge across cultures to ritualize a particular moment in the calendar.
These traditions came to America with various groups of European immigrants, but like so many others, they were made shallow, even cartoonish, through the process of assimilation. We don’t send groups of young girls in white dresses door-to-door anymore, singing hymns to Brigid. Instead, our culture offers jokey news reports about the results from Gobbler’s Knob, and we do our part by not believing them.
Thankfully, regardless of whether we pay any attention or not, the seasons are still there, and still real. We can observe them as closely as we choose to, and the world rewards our attention with finer and finer detail.
Nobody who watches the dance of small seasonal changes—the leafing-out of beech trees, the homecoming of hummingbirds —can fail to realize that the steps are changing. Whereas long-ago generations of humans probably derived comfort and security from marking seasons that behaved predictably throughout their lifetimes, we have the strange, unsettling experience of watching the calendar shift before our eyes. Spring comes earlier now, and for some of us that causes profound anxiety. For me, there’s also a sense of loss for those old traditions that connected people to the seasons in a more elegant way.
I try to remind myself that the essential experience of being human on the earth hasn’t changed. We’re still not in charge. Whatever we make of seasonal shifts—a solemn holy day, a little joke, or an impending catastrophe—it’s still the same story: We live on this planet, conditions change, and we try to make sense of it. And then things change again.