This was originally (last night... lol) as part of a Pennsylvania Dutch History lesson for student study as the Entschtanning begins at sunset tonight (1. Hanning, 2021), but it is a good introduction to the origins or Groundhog Day and this most complicated of Urglaawe observances gets underway.
Entschtanning: The Emergence from Winter's Grasp
Entschtanning is a Pennsylvania Dutch word that means "emergence." It is also the name of a major Urglaawe observance that brings together several Pennsylvania Dutch (Deitsch) cultural events and practices over a twelve-night/day period. The observance begins at sunset on February 1 with Grundsaudaag, better known in wider American culture as Groundhog Day.
Today's lesson consists of a bit of history about Groundhog Day, which today many people view as silly, but, 1,000 years ago, the technology of analyzing weather patterns did not exist, and cultures around the world relied on the natural world around them to provide clues about the future weather.
Many Predictors in Nature
Among the Germanic tribes, weather was often predicted based on when trees would bud in the spring, when they would yellow in the fall, and quite a few other aspects of plants' color and health.
They did not limit their weather forecasting to just plants, though. Animal behavior or appearance, including that of insects, was also considered to be a way of finding clues about the near future's conditions. Some of these traditions with insects are still commonly found in Pennsylvania, particularly with the woolly bear caterpillar (which eventually becomes the Isabella tiger moth) actually has a pretty good track record (over 80% accuracy, according to one scientific study) of weather prediction that comes from the stripe in the middle of its body.
Woolly bears have thirteen segments on their bodies. Each section can appear in either a rusty color or in black. Often it is black at both ends and rusty in the middle. The more rusty a woolly bear appears, the milder the winter will be, or so the saying goes. The more black on a woolly bear, the harsher the winter will be. The winter of 2020-2021 was predicted in the fall by many people to be mild in the beginning and harsh in the middle. So far, that is playing out.
And then along comes the Groundhog
The groundhog holds a special place in American folklore that actually stems from serious practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch. These "superstitions" are rooted in ancient Heathen belief from the time before Christianity took over as the dominant faith of Europe. Ironically, though, in Europe, the animal that was being tracked for this specific weather-predicting function was not a groundhog. It was a European badger (and prior to that, it was a bear).
The German belief was that, if a badger were to awaken on February 2 and were to see its shadow, it would return to its den, thus meaning six more weeks of winter. This is the same lore that came along with the settlers from Germany who became the Pennsylvania Dutch. However, when the settlers arrived here, they found no badgers. Instead, they quickly observed that around this time of year, groundhogs do begin to emerge from their dens. Therefore, it was easy to transfer the folklore from the badger to the groundhog.
That all sounds sort of simple, correct? Well, yes and no. There is a major missing piece of the puzzle of how this holiday survived the move from Germany to Pennsylvania, and that is the piece that is deeply rooted in the ancient Germanic religion.
Many cultures around the world use a "World Tree" as a metaphor for the universe or for all of existence. In Norse/Viking lore (which is also Germanic),their metaphor included a squirrel named Ratatoskr, who would run up and down the tree, delivering news from one realm to the next.
While we have a Tree of Life (Lewesbaam) in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture and in Urglaawe, our forebears saw similar imagery in other contexts as well, including the very land which they farmed. Our rodent's story is not about running up and down the tree. Instead, the imagery relates to the ground.
Groundhog burrows are often complex, with different rooms and multiple openings, all of which are used as allegories to the other realms of existence. The forebears thus set an analogy between the burrow and the Nine Worlds.
Thus, the Groundhog is the otherworldly messenger. The Groundhog brings news and predictions from all of the visited realms. For an agricultural people, the short-term weather is naturally something that the people would like to know. The big question for ancient Germanic farmers was, "When can we plant?" which is probably why that particular feature was passed on to the wider American culture.
Cultural Importance to the Pennsylvania Dutch: Traditionalism vs. Commercialism
Within the Deitsch culture, Groundhog Day is still a big deal. There are 23 "Groundhog Lodges" that hold a dinner on February 2 every year. The use of the Pennsylvania Dutch language is a feature of that night, and use of English costs one dime for each English word used (this is actually not taken seriously; it is a way to raise money to keep the lodges going. Many predictions other than weather are also discussed, some are done in humor. Many songs, plays, and stories that are in Pennsylvania Dutch make their debut at these Groundhog Lodge dinners. Thus, Groundhog Day is also a day of the celebration of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture.
There is also a huge event on February 2 every year at a place called Gobbler's Knob in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This event is what most people think of when they think of Groundhog Day. A poor, captive (though well treated) groundhog named "Punxsutawney Phil" is put before cameras and flashing lights and becomes the "official" Groundhog Day event. While this big, commercial event is indeed featuring some of the Groundhog Day features, it is also losing some of the most important features of the day: the relationship between humans and animals and the close daily interaction with nature.
Some farmers and many people who hold to the old ways continue to observe the behavior of groundhogs and other animals at this time to make other determinations as well.
One traditional practitioner of the old ways told me that the depth of --and the slope to-- the first room in a groundhog burrow can serve as an indicator of wet or dry weather. If the first room is fairly close to the surface or is of a fairly steep slope, then the weather will be mostly dry. If the slope is not steep or if the room is higher than its entrance from the burrow, then one should expect wet weather. There are other behaviors that are examined as well.
Most historians will grant that Groundhog Day has its roots in Heathen-era German practices, but the origins stretch back likely even further. Predicting weather or other things that can impact crops is a practice that transcends cultures, and observing the behavior of animals is an important tool in the forebears’ kit. It was certainly not the only tool; lunar phases, historic weather patterns, river depths, etc., all were (and are) considered as well.
Again, All Superstition?
Actually, no, it is not all superstition, particularly when it comes to the behavior of the groundhogs when they first emerge from hibernation.
Remember that the events in Punxsutawney are not organic. We’re not watching the behavior of a groundhog in the wild. Thus, what may seem to be a silly observance with frequent inaccuracies is not the whole of the story. The annual events in Punxsutawney (and other places) certainly helped to keep the essence of the lore alive, but the true significance of Groundhog Day is masked by the commercial pomp and circumstance of the day. My personal experience is anecdotal, but it matches the experiences of many other people who observe groundhogs in the wild: the accuracy rate in the wild is far, far higher than in the staged media spectacle in Punxsutawney.
Groundhog Day is actually a visceral observance. It comes from a time when people had few reliable means of knowing when they could plant, and they relied upon their relationship with nature and with the animals to make determinations about the consumption of remaining food stores and to plan for the planting.
Thus, this week we Pennsylvania Dutch shall honor the Groundhog and remember our interdependence with the animal kingdom around us.