Groundhog Day

A triviality.

When I was very small, back in the Lower Silurian or thereabouts, my kindergarten teacher (a mollusc of great learning and dignity) told me about Groundhog Day. Every second of February, folk gather round the groundhog’s den to see it come out. If it does not see its shadow, spring will come early; if it does, there will be six more weeks of winter—

It was at this point that I baulked. Here in Alberta, six more weeks of winter after February 2 is an early spring; earlier, in fact, than any spring I have ever seen since I have lived here.

Many aeons later, I knew a lot of mental rubbish-collectors, of the sort who call themselves neopagans but are really just live-action roleplayers gone awry. They insisted (on the basis of alleged Celtic legends) that February 2 marks the first day of spring, which ends on May Day or thereabouts. They base their seasons, in other words, on the traditional cross-quarter days, which they call by their Gaelic names, except that they pronounce them wrong.

Now, a year or two ago, I had an encounter that shed some light on this idiocy. A certain Irishwoman claimed that spring does begin in February, and pointed to the fact that the hours of daylight do begin to noticeably increase about this time. When I objected that the snow lies deep on the ground in most temperate countries at that time – i.e., anywhere less soggy than Ireland – she retorted that the cycle of vegetation has nothing to do with the seasons.

My mind boggled.

Surely it takes an Irishman (or woman) to commit such a blunder. From Baffin Island to Invercargill, the seasons are universally linked to the weather and not to the light; and in particular, to the effects of the weather on plant life. Even in the tropics, one speaks of the rainy season and the dry season, except in a few odd places like Hawai’i, which have no true seasons at all. Spring takes its very name from the growth of the renascent plants, and in America, autumn is called Fall because of what the leaves are doing. And when a good friend of mine speaks of the different climate between New York and the Carolinas, and says the winters are shorter and the summers longer in the South, she does not mean that the South has a separate sun that follows a different seasonal course. She is talking about when the plants grow and when the snows fall.

But this Irish superstition has its counterpart in the Western Hemisphere. Only a few decades ago, a lot of foolish Americans decided that the seasons should begin and end on the equinoxes and solstices, and ever since, we have been subjected to a lot of rubbish about (for instance) December 21 being the First Day of Winter. Now it is obvious to anyone in the Northern temperate zone that December 21 is not the beginning, but the absolute frozen depth of winter; just as it is obvious that November 1 (which the Irish would plump for) is not the beginning of winter, but the dreary fag-end of autumn.

Then we have the meteorologists and the ancient Romans, the only sensible people, it would seem, under the canopy of heaven. The Romans of old began their year with March – the month of Mars, the first month in which the weather was good enough to go out and fight Etruscans and Samnites and things. Modern weather-prophets (and the Oxford dictionary) also consider March the first month of spring. For the seasons are linked to the solar cycle, but not synchronized with it; there is a delay. The equinoxes and solstices come too late to mark the boundaries, the cross-quarter days are too early. It turns out that the calendar months, which don’t agree neatly with any astronomical phenomenon, are perfectly tuned to mark the seasons: which, after all, is what they were intended to do.

Even here in frozen Alberta, where the snow falls from late October to early May, we have three solid and sensible months of summer: June, July, and August, exactly as the meteorologists would have it. And no fool of a Celt shall deprive us of August by banishing it to autumn, nor any fool of an astronomer deprive us of June by relegating it to spring.

Today, in far-off Pennsylvania, a little brown rodent has stuck his snout into the cold air, and either he has seen his shadow or he hasn’t. I don’t know which, and I don’t care; for we are going to have six more weeks of winter here anyway, and possibly six more after that. Playing with the labels won’t alter the weather. Which brings us to a moral, and a warning for those who write: Words mean things, and a fearful tangle of errors and folly waits to ensare those who try to divorce them. When possible, we writers – even we, especially we – ought to attend to the things, and leave the words alone until we are sure of what we are writing about.


  1. Hear, Hear!

    DD19 called me from college 2 days ago, indignant that one of her textbooks had held forth that, no, we don’t need technical terms for the study of game design (her major) because putting labels on things stifles creativity. It did my heart good to know that she can identify such rubbish when she sees it.

    Surely it’s coincidence that I had spotted the wee groundhog scuttling his furry butt across the snow in my backyard only that morning?

  2. Suburbanbanshee says

    Well, actually, February 2 is just about the beginning of early lambing season in Ireland, and that was the start of spring in Ireland. So in that particular case, the seasons really do have to do with the cycle of livestock more than the cycle of vegetation. However, the other Irish cross-quarter days are pretty straightforwardly associated with farming stuff of various kinds. Doesn’t make them necessarily pagan, however, or even stand for what people think if they are pagan. (Samain being associated with court cases, for example.)

    Someday, somebody will track all the harvest and planting times around the world with all the associated festivals and holy days. It’s usually pretty straightforward to discover why certain days are popular in certain places, if only because you can’t throw a really good party when you’re busy or have no surplus food. 🙂

    Another interesting fact: Ireland never really developed hay use over the winter, in the old days, because hay rotted really well in the Irish climate, or never got dry enough to be hay in the first place. So your cows and sheep either ate grass all winter, or in the odd cold year they starved and froze or got slaughtered. This had a lot of effect on Irish history and economic systems.

    Back to the subject… Usually in Ohio, November is the end of fall or beginning of winter (in a cold year), and December is either the beginning of winter or really late fall. So having a “white Christmas” is only a sometimes thing. The days don’t get really cold until January and February in most years (not counting the January thaw), and March is often both winter and spring. (Sometimes in successive weeks.) April is the real beginning of spring, most years, and of course you can’t plant stuff that can freeze until after May 15, or even after May 31.

    So January and February is usually the dreary heart of winter, and I’ve been enjoying all these El Nino thaws we’ve gotten.

    • Lambing starts about the same time in England, but the English know better than to call that the beginning of spring. So I’m afraid I can’t let the Irish off on that one. *grin*

  3. Suburbanbanshee says

    Oh, and there’s a funny bit in the Roman agricultural writer Columella, where he explains that you can’t just read some older Greek or Latin writer on farming and always do exactly what they say for planting and harvest times, because climate changes a lot across time and location.

    (He’s such a good read and so sensible, that it brings you up short when he starts discussing how to pick out slaves for working the farm. Brrrr.)

  4. Suburbanbanshee says

    Now that I think of it, St. Brigit’s Day and Imbolc is February 1, and Candlemas/Groundhog’s Day is February 2. So anybody trying to be pagan with a groundhog has missed the whole festival.

    I will stop filling your comment box now! 🙂

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