February 2nd - I love this time of year and usually think about this small creature. Although I've written much about English folklore in the past, I am fond of this American/Canadian tradition which has given its name to a film, a book and a play. Groundhog Day is an unofficial holiday that everyone knows is absurd, and yet can't stop observing. So why does a small furry animal that looks like an overstuffed rat hold such sway every February 2nd?
The answer lies shrouded in the shadows of history. Most experts suggest the tradition began when German settlers brought their tradition of Candelmas to North America in the 1700s.
February 2nd is supposed to be the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. According to legend, if the weather was good on that day, the rest of the winter would be stormy and cold. If not, the coldest season of the year would be over soon and farmers could start to think about planting their crops. Eventually a hedgehog - not the more traditional creature used today - was added, and the story of seeing his shadow began.
But Groundhog Day owes its current status not to superstition, but to - what else - commercial reality. A newspaper editor named Clymer Freas came up with the idea in the Punxsutawney Spirit in 1886. It wound up being so popular, the legendary Punxsutawney Phil was born, in an event that's been marked ever since. Knowing a good thing when they saw one, the town of Wiarton, Canada, decided to get in on the act, launching its own prognosticating furball, Willie in 1956. It's been the largest tourist event in the area ever since, and has only overshadowed its more famous American cousin once - in 1999, when Willie was discovered dead minutes before his annual prediction was to be delivered.
Groundhog Day received worldwide attention as a result of the 1993 film of the same name starring Bill Murray which was set in Punxsutawney, Take a look for yourself on the GD website.