by Jeff Feldman
I’ve always liked Groundhog Day. I mean the 1993 Harold Ramis film starring Bill Murray, not the “holiday” celebrating a large rodent’s supposed ability to predict the weather. This latter tradition, held every February 2nd , has never been more than a mere curiosity to me. Until recently anyway.
Groundhog Day the film tracks the predicament of Murray’s TV weatherman Phil Connors, on assignment covering the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Connors is a bitter man, having aspired but failed to attain so much more in life. After reporting live from location during the Groundhog Day festivities, Connors finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney for the night by a blizzard. The adventure begins when Connors awakens on what should be the next day, only to find that it’s February 2 nd all over again. The intrigue unfolds as Connors discovers that regardless of what action he takes, including an eventual attempt at suicide, he continues to awaken to February 2nd over and over again. Obviously the Universe is trying to tell him something, and it’s delightful to observe his coming to terms with what exactly that message is.
But what of Groundhog Day the holiday? Every February 2nd, we awaken the snoozing whistle pig from its deep winter slumber, entice it to emerge from its den, and then forecast several weeks’ worth of weather based on its behavior. It’s an odd tradition to be sure. But in exploring the tradition, in seeking to understand the broader story of Groundhog Day, to learn its underlying history, its cultural relevance, and yes, even its significance for humankind, I’ve discovered that the tradition is not so odd after all. In fact, it’s fascinating! In seeking the true meaning of Groundhog Day, there are three matters to consider: Why February 2nd ?, Why the groundhog?, and What does any of this have to do with the movie?
February 2nd may seem a random date. It’s not. The second of February is a cross-quarter day, falling halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. According to the Roman Catholic Church, this day is also known as Candelmas, the day to bless all of the candles to be burned throughout the year.
The recognition of this day has its roots in an ancient Pagan tradition known as Imbolc, literally meaning “in the belly of the Mother”. Just to clarify, the term “Pagan” refers to an Earth-based religious tradition. Look up the word in a dictionary and you’ll find it describes someone who is not a Christian, Muslim or Jew. The early Pagans were outliers, people not of the growing villages, towns, and fiefdoms where the more God-based religions were taking hold. Thus they were called heathens: people of the heath, or of the Earth. Pagans, being connected to the Earth and its seasonal cycles, celebrated this day, halfway between Solstice and Equinox, as the day on which the light returns to the Earth. The Celtic Pagans also called this Brigit’s Day in honor of the Irish Goddess Brigit, goddess of fire, patroness of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. It is only fitting that the day honoring the goddess of fire be celebrated by the kindling of sacred fires. This tradition eventually evolved into the Catholic Candlemas, the day for sanctifying the church candles.
There is more to the Catholic recognition of this day then simply has to do with candles, however. February 2 nd was also the day that Mary first presented Jesus in the temple. Being a nice Jewish girl, Mary abided by the purification guidelines following childbirth not to appear for 40 days. Jesus, being born on or about December 25th , was first brought to the temple and presented on this day. Thus February 2nd in the Catholic tradition is also known as the Feast of the Purification, the day that the Light, the baby Jesus, was presented to the world.
As for the Groundhog, he doesn’t appear in this tradition until quite a bit later, sitting in as a substitute for the animals typically favored by the Germans settling in Pennsylvania who brought the traditions of this day with them to America back in the 18 th Century. The celebration of what we call Groundhog Day today, as initially practiced in Europe, revolved more around the badger or the hedgehog. The important consideration here is that our furry protagonist in this tradition be an earth-dwelling creature of some sort or another.
Badgers, hedgehogs, and the New World groundhogs all carve dens down in the “belly of the Mother”. These creatures “submerge” for a time when winter comes, retreating both literally into the Earth, but also, in a more spiritual sense, inward to themselves. Many of these creatures give birth during this time, thus connecting with the spiritual sense of rebirth, of new life foretelling of the coming spring.
And how does the movie fit into all of this?
Groundhog Day the movie is a comical, mythical version of the groundhog emerging from his winter submersion to see if the world is ready to accept him, or more accurately, if he is indeed worthy of the world’s acceptance. It's a story reminding us of the importance of occasionally going inside ourselves and taking stock of who we are and who we wish to be in the world. When we fail to do this, or when we emerge from this process too early, we are doomed to fall short of fulfilling our potential in life. In the film, Phil Connors is forced to relive February 2nd over and over again until he learns the necessary lessons and enacts the personal changes required to move on. So it is with each of us. Another cycle of seasons has come to a close, the cold dark of winter calls on us to retreat into reflection, it calls on us to process our life’s experience, synthesize what we’ve learned, and apply those lessons to the days and months ahead. We are each presented with the opportunity to emerge into the season of rebirth ourselves reborn in some new form. Or not. The choice is ours to make.
As an expression of his new understanding and acceptance of the cycle of the seasons of life – experience, reflection, growth – Phil Connors, on camera, reliving February 2nd and covering the emergence of the groundhog for the umpteenth time, in his own cheesy style, delivers this message directly to us:
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the of warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
Happy Groundhog Day and Best Wishes for the coming Season of Rebirth!