Sunday, February 08, 2009

"Exit, Pursued by a Bear"

That was one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions, from The Winter's Tale (III.iii). It is unknown whether on stage they used a real bear or someone dressed as a bear; bear-baiting was a popular entertainment at the time, so they had them on hand.

I mention this because--although I am a week late--I recently came across something I did not know about Groundhog Day--in, of all places, a biography of Shakespeare: something very much like Groundhog Day dates back to the Middle Ages.

February 2 is not only the point halfway betwen the winter solstice and the spring equinox, but is also the traditional date for the Christian celebration of Candlemas, or the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. In the Middle Ages, there arose the belief that on this day hibernating animals such as badgers and bears (it varied by country and indigenous hibernating mammal) woke up tentatively to appear on this day. If the day was sunny and the critter saw its shadow, six more weeks of winter remained. If instead the day was cloudy, the weather would turn mild, leading to an early spring. In England there are various references to the "Candlemas bear" and the rhyme "When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day/There it will stick till the second of May."

In Germany, the main meterological mammal was the badger and German immigrants to the United States carried the legend with them. In Pennsylvania, where many German settlers ended up, they used an indigenous groundhog (Marmota monax, or woodchuck) instead. Six of one, half dozen of another, really.

Punxsutawney, PA, has been ground zero for Groundhog Day since 1887. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, an examination of the weather and mammal-prediction records have put so-called Punxsutawney Phil's accuracy rate at less than 40%, which I would estimate as being still better than any Capital Region meteorologist. Imagine if the groundhog had Doppler radar. By the way, whether a groundhog does or does not emerge from its burrow is believed to be related to the amount of fat it was able to store before going into hibernation, although my guess is that Phil gets a wake-up call.

I should also point out that there is no Medieval tradition that the feast of Candlemas involved waking up to the same day over and over.

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