Yesterday – 2nd February – is a day that has grown in significance for hedgehog lovers all across the USA as the nineteenth century tradition of Groundhog Day morphs into Hedgehog Day. It is a day that has attracted many appellations, Candlemas of Imbolc for example. And it is a special time of year in the northern hemisphere as it marks the halfway point between the winter and spring solstice. For pre-industrial societies this would be seen as a significant turning point for those enduring the privations of the leanest months of the year.
Groundhog Day is perhaps most recognised from the delightfully deep and funny film of that name starring Bill Murray (you might have to trust me on the deepness, just watch it with a Buddhist!) in which he plays a tv weatherman forever stuck in a repeating day, having to present the event at Gobblers Knob … I had better explain. The idea behind Groundhog Day is that if the animal casts a shadow when it is yanked from its slumber, this indicates that a further six weeks of winter are to follow.
But where did it come from? Well, there is an old British poem that includes:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.
According to one history of Groundhog Day, conquering Roman legions brought the tradition of a hedgehog being the key player in this act to Germany where it took root and followed the earliest settlers to the New World. But the absence of hedgehogs required a replacement – and that is where the rather un-hedgehog-like groundhog came into the equation. So was born the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, whose ceremonial appearance now attracts tens of thousands of visitors to his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob.
Such an important date is this newly minted Hedgehog Day that it is has become the most significant day in the spiky calendar, with at least two people I have met having arranged their weddings to coincide with the hedgehogs.
But has it the remotest grounding in fact? Advocates have spoken of the writing of Plinius (Pliny the Elder) in support of the story. Plinius repeats a story first recorded by Aristotle claiming that the hedgehog does have prophetic powers over the weather. Apparently it is possible to discern the direction of the weather by looking at the way hedgehogs establish their nests. They are alleged to have two entrances, and block up the one that points towards incoming inclemency. So there is at least some ancient connection between hedgehogs and the weather … but still no evidence that there was ever a hedgehog day in classical times.
And it is not as if there is any agreement on when hedgehog day actually is. For example, in New Zealand it falls on 10th September; Ogden Water, near Halifax in West Yorkshire have chosen 5th November to call hedgehog day; Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough council held a hedgehog day on 10th August; the Isle of White declared that the 17th June was National Hedgehog Day and on top of that we have the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s Hedgehog Awareness week, that runs in early May each year. Strikes me that we should make every day hedgehog day.
Does all this diminish American Hedgehog Day as an idea? Well not really, every ceremonial occasion is a human construct. Every tradition or religious festival, whether it is Easter, Eid, Diwali or Yom Kippur is just made up by people at some point in history. Traditions are important components of societal glue, and I like the fact that we are at liberty to create our own. And then it will be down to the wonderful power of natural selection of the fittest – some ideas will, like species, fall by the wayside as inadequate in the face of newer, fitter models. Perhaps Hedgehog Day will take on a life of it’s own. Perhaps in years to come there will be archaeologists investigating the roots of the dominant, hedgehog-based, religion, excavating the holy site of Gobbler’s Knob. Perhaps I have been spending too long among these people.