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ARCHIE CARPENTER/UPI /Landov

Where Did Groundhog Day Come From?

ARCHIE CARPENTER/UPI /Landov
ARCHIE CARPENTER/UPI /Landov

Just who decided we should trust a Pennsylvania rodent with weather prognostication?

You gotta love a holiday centered around weather. You might think it’s about the animal, but no, any hibernating animal will do just as well. The real reason Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd is that it is close to the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox. Whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not, we still officially have six (and a half) more weeks of winter. This is the turning point of the season, and for pre-industrial societies (particularly farmers), the midwinter date was a day to take stock and determine whether you have enough food and firewood to last the rest of the winter. If you miscalculated the previous fall, or you found that the grain is full of weevils and your cow started looking skinny, you had good reason to look for omens of an early spring.

Imbolc

Ancient pagans marked the solstices and the equinoxes as a way of measuring the cycle of the year. There are also important dates that fall in the midpoint between the solstices and equinoxes, which were considered the real beginnings of the seasons. These "cross quarters" are called Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain, and Imbolc. The old pagan holiday of Imbolc falls on February first or second, and is referred to as the beginning of spring. The word itself is an Old Irish term for a ewe's pregnancy. The date has a tradition of being a good one for weather forecasting. Old verses tell of the date's importance in the cycle of the year.

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

And from a different song:

The Day of Bride, the birthday of Spring,
The serpent emerges from the knoll,
'Three-years-olds' is applied to heifers,
Garrons are taken to the fields.

Imbolc 2007 : Mr Fox Dance group escort the Green Man (spring)

Photograph by Flickr user :mrMark.

Imbolc is also sometimes celebrated as the festival of the ancient pagan goddess Brig or Brigid, who is sometimes confused with the Catholic saint Brigit. Saint Brigit of Kildare's feast day is February 1. The information on Brigit's life is scarce, as the first recorded reference to her was written well after her death. In fact, some sources say that there never was a nun named Brigit, but the priests allowed pagan converts to continue their traditional celebration of Brigid by bending history to concoct the story of a nun who became a saint. Imbolc is a "fire festival," which may explain why the Christian holiday that supplanted it is named for candles.

Candlemas

Christians celebrate February 2nd because it is 40 days after Christmas, a feast day known as Candlemas. This would be the end of the 40-day purification period after childbirth for Mary under Jewish law. It is also considered to be the day the infant Jesus was first presented in the Temple. In Orthodox communities that still use the Julian calendar, Candlemas is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar's February 14th. Soon after it was established, Candlemas also became associated with weather forecasting, as is recorded in the lyrics of songs dating back hundreds of years.

If Candlemas day be dry and fair,
The half o' winter to come and mair,
If Candlemas day be wet and foul,
The half of winter's gone at Yule.

But there is nothing in the religious observation of Candlemas that leads directly to weather prognostication. The date selected to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ replaced old pagan celebrations, and Candlemas does, too. Because of where the date falls, however, the feast of Candlemas became a handy name for midwinter weather forecasting, no matter what country or in what language the tradition was known as before.

The Day of the Bear

Original photograph by Flickr user Beverly & Pack.

The obsession with weather forecasting at this time of year is completely understandable -after all, winter weather is tiresome, and for many, downright dangerous. Will the supplies you stocked in the autumn last until spring? Finding out didn't make the supplies last any longer, but signs of spring could soothe a worried mind. One omen Europeans looked for was the emergence of hibernating animals. The snake mentioned in the old Imbolc verses was rarely ever seen, but hibernating mammals were. In some parts of Eastern Europe, Candlemas is also known as the Day of the Bear, and the weather forecasting tradition varies. In some communities, good weather on the day of the bear will cause the animal to stay outside, meaning spring will come soon. In other places that observe the Day of the Bear, the "contrary" rule applies- if the weather is nice, the bear will see his shadow and be frightened back into his den for more winter weather. So one should hope for a cloudy or stormy day at Candlemas.

Badger Day

Original photograph by Flickr user Tim Brookes.

In France, the marmot became the traditional animal to look for. In England, folks waited for the arrival of the hedgehog. And in Germany, Candlemas was associated with the weather forecasting omen of the emerging badger. In fact, Candlemas was also known as Badger Day in Germany. These traditions went for the "contrary" weather theory.

The Badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and when he finds snow walks aboard; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.

The Germans noted another significance of the February 2nd date: by then, the sun had made enough progress that one could eat supper before dark. That's worth a celebration!

Groundhogs

Original photograph by Flickr user StephenZacharias.

The Pennsylvania Dutch brought their customs from Germany to America. But there were no badgers in the eastern U.S. However, the large ground squirrel (in this case, underground squirrel) known as the whistle pig, woodchuck, or groundhog, hibernated in the winter and filled the requirements of the old tradition. The first recorded reference to Groundhog Day in the United States was in 1841, when James Morris of Morgantown, Pennsylvania recorded in his diary:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

Punxsutawney Phil

Original photograph by Flickr user SchultzLabs.

The tradition spread through the U.S. but the most famous groundhog is still found in Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous citizen of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and is trotted out every February 2nd for the national media -oh yes, and to check for his shadow. Other cities have their own groundhogs, and people in rural areas look for evidence of anonymous groundhog emergence. The groundhog, however, has never been a particularly accurate predictor of the weather. Punxsutawney Phil has a 39% accuracy rate since 1887. After all, how smart can an animal be if he is afraid of his own shadow?

C. G. P. Grey explains how we celebrate Groundhog Day.

See also: The mental_floss Groundhog Round Up

Image manipulation via Speechable.

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Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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