PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (KTAL/KMSS) – On Thursday, Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter, but Groundhog Day is about much more than predicting the timeliness of spring. Celebrating the day is also about the shadow of the oldest known indigenous tribe in the United States and fusing ancient legends, including the Delaware Nation’s great-groundhog Wojak, with Christian and Celtic traditions of Candlemas that trace back to at least the fourth century.
Native American ties to Groundhog Day
Thought to be North America’s oldest indigenous tribe, the Delaware Nation is said to be the originator of Punxsutawney’s original name. Ponkis Utenink, which means land of the ponkis, was settled by Delaware Tribe members known as the Lenni Lenape. Ponkis are sand flies, which were said to have plagued the first European settlers in the land of the ponkis, circa 1772, until they no longer wanted to establish a settlement between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers.
In 1818, settlers tried again. The swamps were drained, the insects exterminated, and by 1840, Punxsutawney had officially turned itself into a European-style village. Ten years later, the population had swelled to just above 250 people. But the village would later become famous because of a little critter that couldn’t even chuck wood, despite one of its many names.
While scientists call the groundhog a Marmota monax, it also goes by woodchuck, whistle-pig, wood-shock, whistler, marmot, thickwood badger, red monk, land beaver, weenusk, monax, groundpig, and some folks even call it a siffleaux. And in case you’re curious, it is a rodent belonging to the squirrel family.
Old World ties to Groundhog Day
Calendars and candles united old-world cultures through Candlemas, a Christian holiday that began in the fourth century and celebrated the return of light after the darkness of winter. Candles were blessed on Candlemas, which occurred on Feb. 2 and also helped divide the Roman calendar into eighths. While the day has many symbolic meanings to the Christian faith, it may also be an adaptation of Februalia, a holiday celebrated prior to the Christianization of the Roman empire.
The German tradition of Badger Day (Dachstag) is based on the belief that badgers see their shadows while coming out of hibernation on Feb. 2, predicting that winter will last longer. And then there’s Imbolc, which is Celtic and symbolizes the day halfway between the winter solstice (Yule) and spring equinox (Ostara.) Imbolc means in the belly of the mother, in case you wondered.
Generations later, in the U.S., kids taught one another the tongue twister, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” (Many kids may not know that a woodchuck is a groundhog!) On Feb. 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a groundhog came out of its hole at Gobbler’s Knob and began a tradition that has been going strong for the past 136 years (even though the reasons why have mostly been forgotten).
But it is no accident that Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Badger Day, and Imbolc fall on the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That time is considered to be a cross-quarter day, the day halfway between winter and spring. Great-groundhog Wojak is said to have been both a groundhog and the ancestral great-grandfather of the Delaware Nation, and came from within the earth. Hence, the name woodchuck may very well be a corruption of Wojak’s name.
The groundhog was important to many of the native nations who lived on these lands for centuries before westerners arrived. In fact, the Delaware Nation’s long-ago neighbors, the Cherokee Nation, have their own legend that seems to explain why the groundhog’s tail is so short, as told by James Mooney in “Cherokee Origin of the Groundhog Dance.”
According to the legend, the groundhog was caught by a pack of seven wolves, but tricked them into letting him sing a song so they could learn a new dance. As the groundhog sang, it got ever closer to the safety of its hole. Then as it jumped for it, one of the wolves caught and bit its tail, causing it to break off. The groundhog’s tail has been short ever since.
While Groundhog Day is steeped in legend, also remember it is about the changing seasons. The lesson is of moon and sun cycles, equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarter days, and it is but one of the ways farmers once knew how and when to grow crops, how ancient astronomers predicted planetary alignments, how sailors navigated, and how latitudes and longitudes were measured. And when you really stop to think about it, those days were not so very long ago.