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Groundhog Day: Transition to the Spring Equinox

Looking Ahead on February 2 to the First Day of Spring

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Will Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow on February 2?

Will Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow on February 2?

David Beaulieu

Everyone knows the gist of our modern holiday on February 2, Groundhog Day, the origins of which were presented on Page 4. If the Groundhog comes out of his winter quarters and sees his shadow, then he will return to his burrow for another six weeks, i.e., on the spring equinox. This is how Groundhog Day turns out most years, namely, with a prediction that good weather will not arrive till the calendar says it's time for the spring equinox. But if Groundhog Day is cloudy, then the Groundhog will remain out, since cloud cover on Groundhog Day is supposed to be an indication of prematurely good weather (just how prematurely is not spelled out by the tradition).

At this juncture, perhaps you're in the scoffer's camp, shrugging your shoulders with a "so what?" regarding Groundhog Day and its vernal prognostications. Phil Connors, Bill Murray's character in the movie, "Groundhog Day," started out in this camp, before his transition (transition, as I argue below, is what the Groundhog Day holiday is all about). Indeed, when pressed for his own prediction on when winter will end, Connors sarcastically gives the date of the spring equinox -- March 21. It's rather arbitrary, after all, to choose a groundhog to play weather forecaster, rather than some other animal; nor should the weather on one day (February 2) weigh so heavily in a 6-week forecast. But such objections utterly miss the point behind Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day is our only holiday that focuses squarely on weather. It occurs at a time when weather occupies Northerners' thoughts more thoroughly than at any other time of the year. We know we're still stuck in winter, but enough of the winter has elapsed that we feel we can now justifiably look ahead to the promise of the spring equinox. More than any other holiday, Groundhog Day is the "looking-ahead" holiday, a holiday of transition. We're not so much celebrating the day at hand, February 2, as we are a day that is on our horizon, the spring equinox. The spring equinox is simply being celebrated ahead of time, as Groundhog Day, on February 2. Asking us to bottle up our hopes until three weeks in March have passed would be unreasonable, don't you think?

This rationale accounts for all the talk about "forecasting" on Groundhog Day. For it isn't the Groundhog who's looking into the future on Groundhog Day, it is we. And whether it arrives early, late or on-time, this is one prediction that inevitably will prove true: good weather will arrive, one way or another. At least it always has. And on Groundhog Day we take solace in that fact.

If you conceive of Groundhog Day as the "looking-ahead" holiday, par excellence, suddenly you realize that its occurrence in early February is not so arbitrary, after all. Although we mark the passage of a year's time using calendars, I may be able to illustrate my point better by referring analogously to another means of measuring time: the clock. Here's what I mean...

Let's say we wanted to mark off the progress of the earth's annual revolution around the sun using the twelve divisions on the face of a clock, as if we were measuring, instead, the passage within a single day from dawn to dusk (6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.). In this analogy, the winter solstice corresponds to dawn and would be at 6:00 a.m., the summer solstice at 12:00 noon. By this logic, the spring equinox and autumnal equinox would occur at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., respectively, working clockwise. At 6:00 p.m. we would have come full-circle: it would be dusk, and we'd have as little sunlight as we had started out with, at dawn.

The period that concerns us is that between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (that is, between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.), the time when good weather is so close, and yet so far away. If we looked for the midpoint between these two junctures, it would be 7:30 a.m. on our imaginary clock -- about February 2 (or a few days after), according to the calendar. It would be right around Groundhog Day, in other words.

Yes, Groundhog Day stands at one of the eight major junctures of the year's passing. By the time February 2 arrives, we've already completed the most difficult portion of our ascent out of the pit of winter's darkest days, standing half of the way to the longed-for spring equinox. The future looks bright as we survey it from our Groundhog Day burrows -- and nothing can overshadow our optimism.

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