The (Other) Most Wonderful Time of the Year
In just a few short days, we’ll be celebrating my favorite holiday in the entire Urglaawe calendar: Grundsaudaag. In English, that’s “Groundhog Day”.
At this point, if you didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania, you’re probably scratching your head and getting ready to make a Bill Murray reference. I’ll save you the trouble: it has nothing to do with the movie, and trust me, the holiday came first!
So if Groundhog Day doesn’t mean repeating the events of your life over and over until you successfully win the heart of your beloved, what does it mean? In a modern, secular context, Groundhog Day is a charming survival of Deitsch (aka Pennsylvania Dutch) culture that takes place each year on February 2nd. It’s most prominently celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, although it didn’t originate there. (Fun trivia: the movie “Groundhog Day” is set in Punxsutawney, but wasn’t filmed there, and the town in the film bears no resemblance to the real life Punxsutawney.) Each year there is a festival with food, socializing, games, and more food. The guest of honor is Punxsutawney Phil, an actual live groundhog, who is pulled from his “burrow” by a circle of gentlemen in top hats and formal attire, literally called the Inner Circle. This ceremony is performed to inform everyone whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter. If Phil cannot see his shadow, we will get an early spring, but if he does, it’s back to winter for us, and back to the burrow for Phil. Various sources differ wildly as to how accurate Phil’s predictions actually are.
But where did this celebration come from? Don Yoder, one of the foremost scholars of Pennsylvania Dutch folklife, gives us some insights in his book “Groundhog Day”, a thorough examination of the holiday and the customs surrounding it. He traces the origins of Groundhog Day to the Christian holiday of Candlemas which was, in turn, a survival of the Celtic holiday of Imbolc. Yoder tells us:
“Though the Candlemas lore from the British Isles, brought to America by our English ancestors, dealt with weather prognostication, no groundhog or other animal was involved. But our German forebears also had folklore surrounding Candlemas, and this lore includes an animal and his shadow in conjunction with predicting the weather…Dachstag, or Badger Day, is a German expression for Candlemas. The belief was the same as that in Pennsylvania Dutch Groundhog lore–if the badger encountered sunshine on Candlemas and therefore saw his shadow, he crawled back into his hole to stay for four more weeks, which would be a continuation of winter weather. In America, the four weeks became six.”
Scholar Rhys Carpenter, also cited by Yoder, connects the American groundhog tradition to European lore about the bear, another stocky-looking animal that hibernates during the winter and might be seen poking his nose out of his den at the first hints of Spring. But the Germans did not have as much lore about the bear, possibly due to fewer bears in their region, and instead transferred much of this lore to the badger. The northeastern United States doesn’t have badgers, but it does have a somewhat similar animal: the groundhog.
Citing the earliest known written documentation of Groundhog Day celebrations in the Pennsylvania Dutch region, Yoder summarizes:
“No doubt the whole Groundhog mystique developed in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, when our emigrant ancestors transferred the weather-predicting expertise of the German badger to our native Pennsylvania Groundhog.”
Why did the Pennsylvania Germans value weather predictions highly enough to carry on this tradition in the new world? In an agricultural society, weather predictions come down to knowing whether the village will feast or starve. But given the sheer number of German badger-related sayings about the weather, there was probably a lot more information available to our ancestors that helped them to intuit coming weather patterns based on the behavior of the animals around them.
In Urglaawe, we take our inspiration from Deitsch folk culture, and so we celebrate Grundsaudaag as the first day of a 12 day observance known as Entschanning, or “Emergence”. This holy tide focuses on the coming of Spring, feminine creative energies, Goddesses of the Hearth, cleaning, and cleansing. It’s appropriate to honor Frigg and Gefjon at this time. We also honor the groundhog itself as a spiritual messenger, travelling the worlds of the Lewesbaam (life tree or world tree) and bringing news and blessings from the other realms.
In our spiritual work, we lay plans to achieve our goals in the coming year, and we clean ourselves and our homes to prepare for the tasks before us. This is the official start of “Spring Cleaning”, where we clean and clear our homes for the return of Frau Holle, who will inspect our efforts on Walpurgisnacht, April 30th. It’s an appropriate time to clean your hearth and start a new fire, which is something that is a typical part of an Urglaawe Grundsaudaag ritual, and which we associate with honoring Frigg.
During this time we also build and ritually bless a Butzemann. “Butzemann” can be loosely translated as “Scarecrow”, which it physically resembles, but it’s more than that–it’s actually a spirit guardian of the land on which it lives. The land is seen as feminine, providing the environment in which the seeds of plants grow, so the Butzemann, as the spirit of the plants themselves, represents the masculine energies, which is why Butzemenner are named and dressed as male. The Butzemann protects the land and the crops. It also protects the household, the animals, and the people who live on the land. I’ll be sharing more about Butzemenner and how to build and work with them in a future article.
Yoder details the feasting, songs, and poetry that sprang up around the Groundhog Day tradition. The star of the feast was, of course, the groundhog, and there are plenty of recipes for roasts and stews made from groundhog meat. Given the connection with Celtic cultures, where animals are consumed to take on their wisdom (as with the Salmon of Wisdom), and with Germanic practices of eating the hearts of animals as part of Seidhr, I think we can safely conclude that the groundhog was probably eaten in order to internalize the messages and blessings it brought from the other worlds when it returned to Mannheim (Midgard, earth) for Spring. Therefore, even though ritually feasting upon groundhog is not currently a common Urglaawe practice, there is certainly traditional precedent and spiritual reasoning for incorporating it. What’s more typical now, though, is to feast on seasonal foods, such as green and white vegetables, Birch beer, and Scrapple (made with pork or rabbit). Other appropriate foods are more symbolic, such as stuffed cabbage, sausage, dumplings, or meat pies, to represent the groundhog “stuffed” inside his burrow.
There’s lots more to the Urglaawe celebrations of Grundsaudaag and Entschanning, and I’ll be sharing more in future articles. For now, here are some resources for further information. Remember, if you’re interested in Urglaawe, there’s always the official Urglaawe resources page, and real live people to answer your questions in the Urglaawe Facebook group!
- More about Punxsutawney Phil (not entirely accurate, but an ok introduction)
- A newspaper feature about the Urglaawe celebration of Grundsaudaag
- My review of Don Yoder’s book, “Groundhog Day”, a major source for this article
- My article on the Grundsau as a spirit animal
- Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics by Rhys Carpenter, cited in this article
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