Winter Real Bear in Shadowy Past

by Nancy Sajdak Manning


Each February 2, on Groundhog Day, Americans continue ancient legends and traditions concerning nature and shadows. We look for signs of spring from shadow-forecasts of our country’s most famous winter hibernator, Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog from Pennsylvania.

In 19th century Michigan, weather forecasters and journalists also looked for February shadow-forecasts, but from much larger winter sleepers—their local black bears. The Bay City Tribune of February 2, 1886described a bear’s role in providing the community with the seasonal weather “pointer”:

If the sun shines, bruin will seehis shadow and you may be sure of a late spring. On the contrary, if the day is cloudy, he will stay out of doors to show us that winter is about at an end.

Bear Day gradually disappeared from Michigan news as the bear population declined. In another issue, the newspaper explained the emergence of the groundhog (or woodchuck) that joined the weather-forecasting scene:

In those localities where there are no bears, the woodchuck or the coon does duty in looking for his shadow on the 2d of February. This is very kind of the woodchuck and the coon.

A journalist with the Tribune’s competition, The Daily Morning Call, jested about the bear’s forecasting abilities:

Today the traditional bear comes out and sucks his paws and winks, looks over the Senatorial situation, consults the lumbermen as to the probabilities in regard to tariff legislations, and if he can see his shadow he retires for another two months’ nap.

The current “Seer of Seers,” the Punxsutawney groundhog, was popularized by City Editor, Clymer Freas in The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in 1886.

He connected a colorful, annual groundhog hunting and gourmet groundhog roasting picnic celebration in Punxsutawney with the Pennsylvania Dutch legend attributing weather forecasting abilities to the groundhog. The editor christened the groundhog celebrators “The Groundhog Club” and decreed the Punxsutawney Groundhog of Gobbler’s Knob to have all official weather prophesizing rights. The Groundhog Club continues to be popular today, with many branches throughout the United States.

Groundhog Day corresponds with the celebration of the European Christian feast of Candlemas Day, a name derived from the blessing of candles distributed by the clergy. In the words of an old English song:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Come, Winter, have another flight;

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Go Winter, and come not again.

February 2 also relates to the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc that was celebrated in early days in Ireland at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and honored the sun’s rebirth and warming of the earth.

Early Romans observed Hedgehog Day on February 2 when they watched for shadows of hibernating European hedgehogs. Nineteenth-century German settlers in Punxsutawney transferred European hedgehog shadow-watching rituals to the plentiful, local woodchucks (Marmota monax, member of the squirrel family). In early America, Delaware Indians who named Punxsutawney, had an ancient legend that recognized the woodchuck as “Wojak” or "grandfather," an ancestor who began life as an animal.

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