Is there anything uncanny about Groundhog Day? Or is it a mere folk ritual?
— Sara Bitts, Johnstown, Penn.
Walk down any Pennsylvania motorway, and you’re bound to spot one of those varmints running for cover. They’re as big as dogs and reproduce with enthusiasm, so odds are that one of these little fellas has some uncanny talent—like, say, prognosticating the weather.
If you’ve never heard of Groundhog Day, here’s the gist: A few thousand people gather in the chilly streets of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The local authorities bring out an overfed groundhog, and if that groundhog “sees its shadow,” it will head for safety, signifying six more weeks of winter.
The Pennsylvania version is all good fun, as far as I know. My own parents brought me there when I was young. (At the time, the holiday was only about 20 years old). Can’t say I understood it, but then again, I’m still a little shaky on the concept.
As it happens, Groundhog Day is based on French and Central European rituals that go back for centuries. I don’t usually give much credence to the oddball traditions of some scattered medieval villages, but there is one anecdote that gives me pause.
In 1741, the Swiss town of Mieillebourg brought their furry “marmotte” to the town square. The moment the groundhog was brought into the light, it “trembled, stricken with terror, and fell over dead.”
The town has a high elevation, and winters are long, but according to town records, Mieillebourg did not experience a true summer for four years. The temperature never rose above 11.1° C., and locals reported hailstorms and freezing rain as late as mid-July. Gardens never took root, and livestock were herded to nearby towns, where weather patterns remained more typical.
When the town finally experienced a warm spring and summer in 1746, Mieillbourg had been largely abandoned. Poor harvests had led to economic catastrophy, and the population dropped by half. In response to those difficult years, the dramatist Christian Montpelier wrote a play-in-verse called La Saison Froide, which became very popular in Paris playhouses in the early 19th Century.
Here’s an excerpt:
Wherefore, these chilling airs of June?
Hath the sun transform’d into a moon?
Would that I knew, ere my daughter froze abed,
we buried her, starv’d child, with so much left unsaid.
Just be glad you didn’t grow up in Mieillebourg. Happy Groundhog Day!