Sandy Parrill: Candlemas, Groundhog Day offer spring forecast

Snowdrops bloom on a previous Candlemas Day.Courtesy | Sandy Parrill

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,

Winter will have another bite.

If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,

Winter is gone and will not come again.

— Folk saying

It’s Groundhog Day, but our local woodchuck in his den under my studio must not have heard his alarm. He hasn’t made his customary appearance to look for his shadow. But if he’s smart, he’ll stay put and keep his weather prognostication to himself for a few more weeks until Mother Nature gets over her mood swings.

The notion that spring could be predicted by the shadow of a small furry animal came to America from Europe, but lacking a hedgehog or European badger to predict spring as was German custom, early Pennsylvania settlers had the choice of groundhogs or badgers. Because our native badgers are quite possibly pound for pound the meanest animal on the North American continent, settlers wisely picked the less vicious and easier to find groundhog to wake up on Candlemas morning.

It wasn’t until 1886 that The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper editor gave Feb. 2 the official name Groundhog Day. A year later, under the auspices of the newly formed Punxsutawney Groundhog Club began the annual trek to nearby Gobbler’s Hill where they found a groundhog to wake up, and Phil rose to the status of global celebrity, sharing his predictions with the world. When Prohibition began, he even threatened to impose 60 more weeks of winter if he didn’t get some whiskey, and it must have been a long, dry, cold 13 years before common sense prevailed to end Prohibition. These days, on Groundhog Day in the small town of Punxsutawney, crowds of upwards of 10,000 gawkers gather to see Phil yanked out of his comfortable stump bed to squint at the sun. Or not.

If Phil has gotten it wrong (which he — or his grandkids, though the Club swears there has only ever been one — of course never has), I’m sure his grumblings in Marmotish were misinterpreted and actually threats that if he wasn’t left alone to sleep, he would curse everybody and the horses they rode in on with winter until April. Club records show that, in 134 years, he has not seen his shadow only 17 times and predicted an early spring. But take into account when applying the dire threats of a Pennsylvania rodent to Missouri.

Ozark groundhogs are likely already yawning and stretching, getting ready to cruise the neighborhood long before snow blankets melt over those giant Yankee ground squirrels.

North American groundhogs (Marmota monax), one of 14 species worldwide, are closely related to squirrels but go by several alias, including woodchuck, whistle pig, land beaver and — at Chaos — that damned rat. In spite of the appellation woodchuck, it doesn’t chuck wood (what is that anyway?) and got that from the Algonquin name wuchak.

Groundhog Day has more to do with checking out chicks than forecasting weather, in truth. Normally waking up about the first of February, the males emerge from sporadic hibernation to roam their 2 to 3 acre territory, searching out females in their dens, running off any male interlopers and paying courting overnighters to each of the gals, though they initially go home to their own beds and don’t actually mate. The booty calls begin in earnest after a couple of weeks’ nap and continue on a daily basis until all their mates are pregnant, then the males are kicked out to solitary bachelor lives until the next spring. The mothers keep the houses; dens 6 feet deep and sometimes extending 60 feet or more underground with several doors and bathrooms for everybody. Groundhog babies are born in April. Young males get booted out when they mature, but daughters live with their mothers until the following spring.

Cute as they are, groundhogs are pesky critters, with a huge appetite for veggies, violets and hostas (if deer don’t get there first), but they are not total vegetarians. They also eat worms, grubs, eggs, baby birds and insects; each consumes a pound of food or more at one sitting. And they can overpopulate their territory in short order — Jim caught 11 in one year in Chaos (I don’t ask what he did with them, not my need to know). They have a normal lifespan of three to four years. However, they have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity with no predators, but those cuddly looking fuzz-butts are totally untrainable and terrible pets if that thought crosses anyone’s mind.

Feb. 2 is also Candlemas Day, Brigid’s Day or Imbolc, depending on how far back one goes. Candlemas Day, a Christian observance marking the end of Mary’s 40 days of uncleanliness after the birth of her baby boy (had the child been a girl, it would have been 60 days) and the rite of presenting the child Jesus to God, is a day of purification. The faithful take their candles to church to be burned, blessed and reminded that Jesus is the light of the world to Christians.

In earlier Ireland, Imbolc was (and is) a day of purification, marking on Celtic calendars the point halfway between winter and spring and beginning of lambing, when Earth is pregnant and awake. Also known as Brigid’s Day for the pagan goddess of fire, sun, hearth and home, poetry, healing and fertility, it is a day of ritual spring cleaning of house and mind, making commitments for the new beginning cycle, feasting and making corn dollies with sheaves saved from Lammas (fall equinox) or Brigid’s crosses of wheat stalks to protect homes from fire and lightning.

Closer to home, Feb. 2 is the day to look for blooming snowdrops. An old proverb tells us: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears it’s head on Candlemas day”.

But my favorite February day, begun by a New York housewife in the 1960s in response to her bored, snowed-in children, is Ice Cream for Breakfast Day, the first Saturday of February — yes, it’s an actual thing. Not surprisingly, the family tradition caught on quickly and is now celebrated worldwide. I can get behind a feast day like that.

Bet people would even forgive Punxsutawney Phil for seeing his shadow if ice cream for breakfast was part of Groundhog Day. Make mine English toffee chocolate chip, please.

Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener and a Missouri master gardener. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at sandraparrilll@sbcglobal.net and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.

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