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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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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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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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