- Groundhog Day
In writing Groundhog Day, Don Yoder did not take himself too seriously, an appropriate stance when documenting customs that are full of tongue-in-cheek humor. His descriptions—particularly of the inner circles of the active Pennsylvania German Grundsow (Groundhog) lodges and their costumes, programs, foodways, rituals, and history—are entertaining, even as they make a significant contribution to folklife scholarship. Yoder's sources range from interviews with members of Groundhog clubs and lodges in Pennsylvania, to historical research in newspapers and archives, to the popular internet sites that promote the activities of the groups that celebrate February 2 and their "star" groundhogs (including Punxsutawney Phil) around the United States and Canada. He also discusses the movie Groundhog Day (Columbia Pictures, 1993), which was recently added to the National Film Registry, and the many recent children's books based on Groundhog Day.
Yoder traces the origins of Groundhog Day to the pre-Christian Celtic calendar's quarter days, in which spring begins at Imbolc (February 1), as well as to the Roman night processions held on February 2 to honor the goddess Februa. Both were overlaid by the medieval Christian feast in honor of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Presentation in the Temple, known as Candlemas, February 2. These days were important for the making of contracts, marriage divination, and weather prognostication. In central Europe, the emergence of bears and badgers from hibernation on February 2 was used in weather divination, and Candlemas celebrations were part of the festival season from Christmas through Mardi Gras. These customs from Switzerland and Germany are presumed to be the source for the contemporary Pennsylvania Germans' practice of observing the emergence of the groundhog on this day. But Yoder does not speculate about these Pennsylvania German origins of the festival, and he notes only that the first mention of Groundhog Day that he could find was in an 1840 diary entry by James L. Morris of Morgantown, Pennsylvania. The strength of Yoder's book is in its historical and contemporary details. Yoder includes a chapter on the natural history of the animal, a chapter on the groundhog as a culinary delicacy (which includes recipes), and materials that place the Groundhog Day celebration in the context of other events in the yearly cycle of activities of the Groundhog Lodges.
The book was designed to appeal to a general audience, but it includes much new information from Yoder's research. The final chapter, titled simply "Other Weather Lore," introduces a number of traditions, such as using leeches for weather predictions, and places these weather beliefs in the context of other Pennsylvania Dutch beliefs and countervailing Quaker beliefs, which Yoder knows better than any living scholar. Groundhog Day is brief book, full of wonderful photographs of Groundhog festivities [End Page 367] as well as a few fascinating photographs of items selected from the thousands in Yoder's collection of religious and folk ephemera. I only wish for a more full-scale treatment of all of the North American folk customs surrounding February 2: St. Brigid's Day, St. Blaise, La Chandeleur, La Candelaria, and the neopagan celebrations of Imbolc. Like Groundhog Day, many rural traditions are impacted by the changes that have come recently to the landscape and the agrarian year, and Yoder's book can serve as a model for research in this area.