By Ted K. Cox

Groundhog Day, like Valentine’s Day and Arbor Day, is one of those holidays that many people can’t tell you much about. They can explain the festivities associated with the holiday, but rarely its origins.”About four years ago was the last time I even realized it was Groundhog Day,” freshman Andy Martin, 18, said.

The day of the groundhog has gone the way of Halloween. The fact and fiction behind it are now merged, and it is hard to separate the two.

Alice Jones, director of Eastern Kentucky Environmental Research Institute and geography professor, explains how the originally European holiday has made the journey to America.

“Groundhog Day is the American version of Midwinter’s Day, the mid-point between the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21) and the Spring Equinox (March 21),” Jones said.

A Pittsburgh Tribune Review article also traces the holiday as evolving from Candlemas Day, a Christian tradition commemorating the Virgin Mary’s purification. This holiday migrated to Germany where it became associated with weather prediction.

Jones said that in many European and other cultures, the day is associated with weather prediction. But why predict weather on a day falling in the middle of winter?

Jones suspects it’s a combination of two factors: good ole winter boredom and the necessity of weather predictions in an agricultural society. If it were an extremely cold winter, then the citizens of these societies could likely expect a late thaw and in turn a shorter growing season, Jones said.

If it were warm in the mid-winter, then crops could be planted earlier in the season, which would produce a more plentiful harvest, Jones said.

But wait, what does any of this have to do with a groundhog or even a shadow? If there even a relationship?

It all connects with our good friend, science. Extremely cold weather is associated with high atmospheric pressure systems. These high pressure systems contain less water vapor, or clouds, than lower pressure systems.

So in turn, milder weather, associated with low pressure in the atmosphere, tends to cause more cloud coverage, Jones said.

So when you’re walking down the street in mid-winter, or even on Groundhog Day, and see your shadow, then the atmospheric pressure is high and cold weather will ensue for the remainder of the winter months.

“Why don’t we pay much attention to Groundhog Day, with the exception of TNT showing the Bill Murray movie over and over?” Jones asked. “Likely because we are no longer a culture of farmers.”

“It’s a remnant of our agricultural past when the most important holidays were all associated with planting and harvest,” Jones said.

But the tradition of Groundhog Day lives on in America in many forms. The most popular probably being the festival held each year in Punxsutawney, Pa., featured in the Bill Murray film.

Each year the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, comes out and looks around for his shadow to notify his public of his forecast for the next six weeks.

This year, Vasaline Intensive Care Lotion is inviting people to join the “Movement for Six More Weeks of Winter” to promote its product by spreading it on cold chapped lips in Punxsutawney.

Reach Ted at
teddy_cox29@eku.edu