“Only with winter-patience can we bring
The deep desired, long-awaited spring.”
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Unicorn and other Poems (1956)
It’s February, the waiting time of the year–the beginning of the transition from winter to spring. We may be longing for the first indications of Nature’s awakening beauty — pink crocuses, purple hyacinths and yellow daffodils — but instead, today, as we step out the door, we’re greeted by piercing blasts of bitter cold, frosty air and sub-freezing temperatures. Except for the green of the firs and the spruces, we find little sign of life anywhere. Graceful beeches hold on to a few withered leaves from last season, but most of the other trees are stark and bare—lonely black silhouettes against a gray winter sky.
There’s a stillness all around. No squirrels or chipmunks dashing about, as they are safely ensconced in their cozy nests hidden in trunks of trees. Backyard birdhouses stand empty and forlorn with no sign of the birds nor sound of their cheerful songs. No evidence of raccoons having raided our trash cans. They, too, have left the scene for snug, warm havens.
All of nature appears to be fast asleep, but legend tells us one slumbering animal will awaken from hibernation today, February 2, to observe the state of the weather. Based on this animal’s action and its implied prognostication, a prediction of the advent of spring is made. Every year, many individuals hope this will be the news they’ve been eagerly waiting for–that they can leave the tired, old winter behind and move on into spring. This furry little weather predictor is none other than the groundhog. February 2 is, of course, Groundhog Day, the annual holiday honoring him.
In ancient times, it was believed that, on February 2 (Candlemas Day), if the weather was sunny and bright, a cold harsh winter would continue for another six weeks. However, if it were cloudy and rainy, an early spring was on the way. Medieval folk thought that various hibernating animals, such as the badger, bear and hedgehog, would come out from their warm underground burrows at this time of year to assess the state of the weather and make predictions.
In Germany, a legend developed that if the hedgehog saw the sun, it became frightened by its own shadow and would crawl back to its hole to sleep for another six weeks. This indicated more bad weather to come and, as a result, poorer crops that year. If the skies were overcast, there would be no shadow to scare the animal, so it would remain above ground. This was interpreted as meaning cold weather was soon to end and warmer days to appear.
The legend of the hedgehog was brought to America by the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Dutch). Many of these early settlers became farmers who planted their crops according to this superstition. Since there were no hedgehogs in America, the farmers transferred the idea to the American groundhog, an animal similar to the German hedgehog. The groundhog is approximately 15-18 inches long, with bushy tail, short legs, and coarse fur, black and gray above and chestnut-red below.
Through the years, Groundhog Day has become a part of Americana. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is home to the groundhog tradition and recognized as the “Groundhog Capitol of the World.” Since 1887, Punxsutawney has held annual observances of Groundhog Day. At sunrise, thousands of onlookers from all over the world gather at Gobbler’s Knob to watch “Punxsutawney Phil,” the nation’s official groundhog, emerge from his warm winter den. Phil gives his prediction for the length of the remaining part of winter supposedly in “Groundhogese” to his keeper, who then relays the forecast to the waiting crowd. In most cases, Phil does see his shadow and returns to his den to wait six more weeks for spring.
Truth be told, regardless of Punx’y Phil’s message of an early or late spring, or our own longing for a quick end to the winter, spring invariably and predictably arrives six weeks from now–around March 21. Nature moves inexorably, according to its own timetable.
Our lives also follow a timetable. As the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
We may grow tired of the situations in which we find ourselves and wish we could move ahead to the next new period without delay. However, it’s good to keep in mind that we can’t rush the seasons of our lives anymore than we can rush the appearance of the flowers on the earth.
May we know the peace of mind that comes from remembering that when the time is right, the next season begins. Be patient and wait. Everything in its time.
Here’s to Life!