Monday, February 02, 2009

What? No Hedgehogs? - A Brief History of Groundhog Day

February 2 is the Winter cross-quarter day, which means it's the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. In Europe it's always been a day for getting ready for Spring, with fertility rituals and hunts for hibernating animals to see if they were waking up yet. The chief pre-Christian celebrations were the Roman Lupercalia and the Celtic Imbolc. After the Church "conquered" Europe, the old pagan holidays were appropriated and "Christianized"; the old February holiday became Candlemas, the day of the purification of the Virgin Mary. But many of the old pagan rituals continued to be practiced on Candlemas.

In Germany, one of the critters looked for on Candlemas to see if Spring might come a little early was the humble but adorable Hedgehog:

Apparently Hedgie would traditionally come briefly up out of hibernation to sniff out the situation before heading back to sleep for a little longer, sort of like a pre-digital snooze alarm. The German farmer folk would watch how Hedgie reacted to conditions and figure out whether there was more bad weather coming or if maybe the bad stuff was over for this year.

Many of these German farming families emigrated to North America in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and settled in Pennsylvania. When Candlemas came along, they looked for Hedgie, and it was then that they discovered that Hedgie didn't live in the New World. Gott im Himmel! How were they supposed to prognosticate the coming of Spring without Hedgie?

But the New World did have a critter as common as Hedgie living in the fields, the humble Groundhog; they knew his cousin, the Marmot, back in the Old World. So with no Hedgehogs to look for, they adopted the Groundhog to predict the coming of Spring on Candlemas:

It was from those Pennsylvania German farmers that the tradition developed in the US of watching for a Groundhog to come out of his hole on Candlemas. Eventually everyone else started following their example; after all, Groundhogs are everywhere in the US. And in 1886 the day was officially dubbed Groundhog Day, and so it has continued since then. Do you know anybody who still celebrates Candlemas? But everybody celebrates Groundhog Day!

But just think; if some of those German farmers had had a little foresight and thought to smuggle Hedgie aboard the boat when they came over, we could be celebrating Hedgehog Day instead. The mind boggles!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

(hedgehog picture attributed to Lars Karlsson and distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.)


  1. Love the new look...

    And how did you know? I am crazy about hedgehogs and ground hogs! Spent a couple weeks at a state park in the PA mtns and here was a tame ground hog - the fattest ever seen - who would come up to each cabin and rattle the screen door for treats. It was the first time I ever saw one real close up. I just fell in love with him.

  2. Cool! Thanks for the history. I didn't know Groundhog Day came from Candlemas and the Hedgie. At our office, we call our resident groundhog "Hedgie." So Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle started it all...

  3. Heh, heh! I saw an article on about the history of Groundhog Day (being something of a Pagan I already knew about Imbolc) and saw the thing about Hedgehogs (among other animals, including Badgers) being used as prognosticators, and I just couldn't help myself. One of my Gather friends (Steph, I think you're connected to Dannielle S, of the Hedgie icon, as well, aren't you) is a total Hedgehog freak, so I just had to do this. Yup, it all started with Tiggy!

  4. did you take the groundhog is so good did remark that the hedgehog pic is courtesy lars) what is it about hedgehogs that make them so appealing. beatrix potter??

    there's a little something for you today at the mouse! thanks for bringing us into your world. it is a wonderful place!