What Is Groundhog Day? Spiritual Messages From the Day and Movie
Snowdrops - Sign of an Early Spring?
What Makes Groundhog Day Special?
Groundhog Day seems odd—what is a holiday doing on February second? But, actually, this date is set in the heavens. The day lies halfway between the winter solstice on December 21st (the shortest day of the year) and the spring equinox on March 21 (when the Earth is straight up in line with the sun, day and night are equal in length, and the sun crosses the equator, bringing the light and warmth of spring).
In our calendar today, we say that spring starts on March 21. But that's always seemed kind of odd to me. After all, January is the coldest month. Right around Groundhog Day, as days lengthen and the sun offers more energy to the Earth, things begin to warm up. A few flowers, like snowdrops, are springing up from the Earth. If the weather is warmer and flowers are pushing through, hasn't spring started?
It turns out that the ancient Celtic people of Europe saw things the same way. For them, spring began on February 2nd on Groundhog Day, which they called Imbolc. The equinox on March 21 was the middle of spring. Spring ends—and summer begins—on May 1st, May Day (also called Beltane).
The Mound of The Hostages
How Old Is Groundhog Day?
Groundhog day, or Imbolc, is incredibly ancient; over 4,000 years old, in fact!
The Mound of the Hostages, a burial ground built around 2,500 B.C.E., has a doorway that has direct sun falling into it at sunrise only two days a year. Only on these two days does light enter the tomb. One day is Groundhog Day, and the other is Halloween, which marks the end of Fall and the beginning of Winter among Celtic peoples.
In ancient times, Imbolc was associated with Brighid, a Celtic Goddess. When the Celtic peoples became Christian, an adjustment was made and the day was linked to St. Brighid.
Groundhog Day Comes to America
Imbolc, the Celtic holiday, had a tradition that a badger or a bear might come out of his hole on February 2nd. If he did and it was sunny, he would see his shadow. This would predict six more weeks of winter. If the bear or badger did not see his shadow, then spring weather would begin soon, meaning an early spring.
We don't have many bears or badgers in American farmland. But we do have groundhogs!
So the Pennsylvania Dutch, who are not Dutch at all, but German, changed the tradition. Instead of a bear or badger, the Pennsylvania Dutch would watch for a groundhog to come out of his burrow and see his shadow. If he did, six weeks of winter weather were on the way. If not, spring had arrived.
Traditional Hex Sign
Pennsylvania Dutch Memories, Food, and Art
If the Pennsylvania Dutch are German, how did they get called Dutch? It's simple, the German word for German is Deutsch. These German-speaking settlers were originally called Pennsylvania Deutsch. This got simplified to Pennsylvania Dutch. Many Pennsylvania Dutch people kept traditional farms and continued to speak German for generations.
They also make great food. I grew up in Philadelphia and learned to enjoy these treats: German chocolate cake, Dutch apple pie, wonderful cheeses, and Lebanon Bologna (from Lebanon, PA). If you go to Philadelphia, check them out at the Reading Market in the old train station that brought these goodies in from Reading, PA, the shipping center of the farm country.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are also famous for their blacksmith work and for hex signs, colorful geometric and floral designs that are often symmetrical and painted on a circular board to hang over the doors of barns and houses to bring good luck and ward away evil.
Groundhog Day Traditions
Imbolc, or Groundhog Day, has always been associated with two things: good or ill fortune, and divination of the future. In ancient times, gifts were offered to the Goddess (later saint) Brighid, asking for her blessings in general, and specifically for the protection of farm animals. Also, various types of divination were tried.
There is one wonderful legend that the Goddess Cailleach, an old woman, would come out on February 2nd to collect firewood for the rest of the winter. Since she was a goddess, if she wanted a long winter, she would make the day sunny so she could collect lots of firewood. If she wasn't worried about gathering much firewood, she would sleep in, and the day would stay cloudy. So a cloudy day meant that Cailleach had decided that spring was coming soon.
Imbolc has a strong association with candles, fire, and milk. By February 2nd, the sun stays up long enough to milk the sheep and cows by evening light, so candles are spared. Some are lit on the holiday to celebrate the fact that we don't need them any more. Bonfires mark the fact that winter is passing and we can collect wood again; there is no need to carefully hoard our stores of firewood to survive the winter. And milk becomes available as the ewes give birth to young lambs and begin to provide sheep's milk.
Imbolc is Still Celebrated Today
Ancient Spiritual Meanings of Imbolc
I got an email from a friend up north in Wisconsin on January 31st. He said that, right after he went out for a run, it snowed, and he was unpacking skis and skates.
That's what weather means to us now—a simple change of clothing and sporting equipment. Or, if we don't like the weather, we just stay inside.
In ancient times, things were very different. To understand what Imbolc means—why it is a festival or holiday, and why people wanted to know so badly if Spring had come at last, we must imagine life at that time.
Imagine, for a moment, no central heating. Imagine no refrigeration or reliable way to store food. Imagine late frost or snow killing off the spring crop. Imagine that your grandmother, who lives with you, is sick, and may not live without fresh food. Imagine remembering a friend who's baby died because they planted early last Spring and a late snow wiped out their spring crop, and there wasn't enough food for the family. Imagine another family who starved because their sheep, who gave milk, died.
In a world like that, good fortune, like not getting sick or having healthy animals or meeting a wonderful future husband or wife, can mean the difference between life and death.
In a world like that, six more weeks of winter can be a matter of life and death. Even more so, knowing whether there will be six more weeks of winter, and therefore when to plant, often is a matter of life and death.
And so the ceremony developed as our ancestors sought ways to know the future, and to survive.
This Bear Is Seeing Her Shadow
Why the Groundhog (or the Bear, the Badger) and His Shadow?
But there's more going on here. One of the great wisdom lessons of all traditions is that everything changes. And animals do know what is going on with the weather.
A bear semi-hibernates during the winter, and comes out for the spring. So, when February 2nd comes along, the bear is pretty hungry. She comes out for food:
- If the weather is so cold that, even in sun, the bear never comes out, that's a sure sign that the ground is still frozen and winter will last a while.
- If the weather, in general, is still cold, but today, the sun is out, she'll come out to forage even though the season is not changing yet. She'll see her shadow, and the winter is likely to be long.
- If the weather, in general, is starting to warm up, she'll come out to forage for food even on a cloudy day. It's warm even without the sun; a real sign that Spring is coming. The bear doesn't see her shadow, and spring has begun.
Is This Even Possible - Scientifically Speaking?
This has not yet been scientifically tested. And we don't know the original location where the bear or badger was thought to have this knowledge. But it is scientifically possible. In scientific terms, in fact, it makes sense in two different ways. First, from recent climate science, we know that local climate is very much changed by the temperature and moisture in the soil. So if the ground is still frozen (the bear stays in, even on a sunny day), then the local climate is likely to stay cold. If the ground is still cold and the bear only comes out on warm sunny days (the bear sees her shadow) then cold is likely to linger. Once spring is coming, the bear comes out, even on cloudy days. If it's time for the bear to find food, it's time to realize Spring is here and start planting.
This also makes sense in terms of evolution. Wild animals have the same problem that farmers do—how to get enough food each spring and summer to survive the winter. So, over millions of years, those bears who were aware of subtle climate signs and behaved accordingly were much more likely to survive. One thing every student of nature has learned is to not underestimate the power of natural intelligence.
Perhaps the wisest thing to do is to watch the burrowing and hibernating animals in general, and know that, when they come out on cloudy, cool days, Spring has come. And that wisdom was ritualized into the ceremony of Groundhog Day.
The lesson of wisdom is to watch what is happening in nature to understand and make a better guess about the future.
Spring is Coming
How do you know when Spring is coming?
Shadows and Reversals
One More Lesson: Unexpected Reversals
There is one more lesson of Groundhog Day. Sun on one day means six more weeks of winter. Clouds on that day mean Spring is here. There is a sense of unexpected reversal. This is another ancient spiritual lesson. It's a good message for gamblers—every run of good luck is going to end. And it offers hope for those bearing up in times of difficulty—things will turn around. Those who prepare for unexpected reversals do better in good times, as well as in bad ones.
So, the spiritual lessons of the ancient holiday of Imbolc, or Groundhog's Day are:
- Pay attention to nature, and get a sense of what will happen.
- Be prepared for unexpected reversals in life, and you will do well.
Now, what does Groundhog Day: The Movie have to teach us?
Punxsutawney, PA: Groundhog Central
Many towns in the US and Canada celebrate Groundhog Day. But Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (northeast of Pittsburgh, in the center of the state) has the most famous celebration. It's been running every year since 1886, and it comes complete with people in traditional German costume and their own groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.
A public art project has placed 32 garish fiberglass statues of Phil all around the city.
The ceremony became truly notorious in 1993, when it was the locale of the film, Groundhog Day with BIll Murray. One year, over 40,000 people came to see the event. (Most of the film, though, was actually shot in Woodstock, IL.)
Groundhog Day Ceremony
Groundhog Day - The Movie
Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie with Bill Murray, has become an icon in popular culture. In the Movie, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an obnoxious, self-centered news weatherman. He comes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual event in which people dress up in traditional German clothing and watch the world's most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, to see if he sees his shadow.
Now, the ceremony in Punxsutawney is real. It's been happening every year since 1886. And, to be honest, it is kind of silly. But Murray takes it over the top, insulting the day and everything in it, and, above all, offending Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, an eminently desirable young lady on the TV station's weather team.
This set's the stage for the movie's main action, where Phil Connors is trapped in an endless loop of repeating Groundhog Day. Once he realizes he's trapped, he goes through three phases. First, he goes out to enjoy himself. Then he gives up in misery and tries every type of suicide to escape. But no, he wakes up each morning on February second to the alarm clock, trapped on Groundhog's day.
Eventually, he decides to become a better person. That's heading in the right direction. What happens? Well, that would be a spoiler. Let's just say it's a comedy, and comedies have happy endings.
Estimates of how long Connors is trapped vary. The movie leaves it open to interpretation. Some have said 10 years (that's 30,000 days). Others say it would take longer to grow up—perhaps 40 or 50 years. The author of the screenplay was thinking that it would take 10,000 years to learn all the lessons Connors learned.
The Groundhog Day Movie in Popular Culture
US Army Rangers in Somalia and other folks in the military loved the movie when it came out because it reminded them of their own situation—doing the same thing every day while nothing ever changes.
As a result, the phrase "a groundhog day" took on a new meaning. Now, it means a situation that seems stuck and unchanging—a boss who won't listen, a dead-end job, a married couple who repeats the same arguments without listening. All these are groundhog days.
The movie has also inspired many thousands of people to say, "maybe life is about learning to be a good person. Maybe life is about learning to love, not just waiting and hoping for love."
And that is an inspiring message.
See the Movie
Groundhog's Day, the Movie, has been rated one of the greatest spiritual movies of all time. It's also a lot of fun. How many times have you seen it?
The Spiritual Message of Groundhog Day
Do you feel trapped in your life?
Do situations repeat endlessly, even though you wish they would change? Even though, whatever you do, they don't change?
If so, maybe it's time to consider that waiting for someone else to make a change is not the answer. Maybe even trying to force change is not the answer.
Maybe the answer is to change ourselves. Not to change in a way that is untrue to ourselves, but rather, to release all the blocks and barriers to being who we truly are. Who are we, truly? Personally, I've been asking that for over 30 years. And I've been watching myself and other people as closely as the ancient Celts watched for the bear on Imbolc.
I've come to see that every person, is, in fact, a beautiful, loving human being and a gift to the world.
So, I suggest this: The meaning of Groundhog Day, the movie, is that we are trapped in an endless sequence of days—about 25,000 of them in 70 years—and that the one thing we can do is to release the barriers that keep us from being loving, creative people who serve others and bring joy, health, and peace to this world.
Boy, does the world need people doing that!
Groundhog Day in Life and the Movie - Is There a Connection?
As far as I can tell, the creators of the movie Groundhog day had a comic idea and a spiritual message. And they decided that the holiday was a good thing to poke fun at, and a rural Pennsylvania town was a good setting. So they used Punxsutawney and Groundhog Day as a focal point for their message. But there's no sign that they saw a connection between the movie's message and the holiday.
That doesn't mean that there isn't one. Carl Jung proposed synchronicity - that, because all life is connected, we can find spiritual associations and meanings that connect when things come together. Let's see what happens when the holiday and the movie come together in my meditations.
The lessons from the ancient holiday of Imbolc were:
- Pay attention to nature, and get a sense of what will happen.
- Be prepared for unexpected reversals in life, and you will do well.
In the movie, Phil Connors saves a child from injury when he falls from a tree and saves the life of a man who is choking to death. That is, he becomes good fortune, reversing ill fortune. And he goes from thinking he has it all together and is better than etveryone else, that is, thinking that he is the best and wanting only the best (but inside, being miserable) to being truly good and humble. That is, he reverses many things in life. And how does he do this? He pays attention to what is happening, to the life and death all around him. That is, he pays attention to the life and death that comes with the change of seasons.
So, our final message: Do more than survive in the days of your life. Become loving. Become good. How? By flowing with life, by practicing and learning skills, by being humble, by being attentive to others, by reversing ill fortune through wise and generous action, by letting go of arrogance and entitlement and ego.
Wherever that message comes from, it's a good one. Please put it into action - with joy!