Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Okay, okay...not quite.  But it is Groundhog Day tomorrow.  And the Bill Murray movie is great fun, so it deserved a shout-out.

Have you ever thought about Groundhog Day?  What a funny little holiday.  We wait to see if a little critter pops out of his hole...and then pops back in again, or hangs around looking for food.  What a strange thing to celebrate!

A groundhog.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

There are many potential origins for the celebration of Groundhog Day.  One of the most commonly cited is the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  February 2nd is a cross-quarter day, or a day that falls in between a solstice and an equinox.  In particular, Imbolc falls between the Winter Solstice (December 21) and the Spring Equinox (March 21).  In ancient times, this would have been a celebration of the coming of Spring, the start of the agricultural season, and the return of numerous critters like snakes and badgers.  The origin of the word Imbolc seems to refer to the birth of the first spring lambs, another sign that soon life will abound on the Earth again, after a long, cold winter.

In the New World, the groundhog exhibited the required behavior...staying below ground all winter long, and coming out only when the weather began to warm to forage for food.  Tradition holds that if the groundhog sees his shadow, the weather is too clear and cold and little food will be available.  Down the hole he goes, to wait a bit longer before checking for food again.  If the skies are overcast, the spring rains are on the way, and food will be abundant.  The groundhog stays out and begins to search for food.  Over the years, this has become associated with a prediction for either 6 more weeks of winter weather, or the arrival of an early spring.

In reality, no matter what Punxsutawney Phil (or any other groundhog, for that matter) sees tomorrow morning, there will still be 6 more weeks of winter.  Spring will arrive for us, as it always does, around March 21, when the Earth's northern hemisphere is tilted neither towards nor away from the Sun, and day and night are of equal length.

The Spring Equinox.  Courtesy

Hmmm...I wonder if that means that in the southern hemisphere on February 2nd, they watch for some critter to predict if there will be 6 more weeks of summer.

Whether you think Groundhog Day is a silly holdover or a fine ancient tradition, it is an excellent time to learn about critters that hibernate and how the Earth gets its seasons.  And participate in some uniquely Groundhog Day fun to boot!  If you're in the area, come out to the Virginia Living Museum tomorrow for two great opportunities to celebrate the day.  If you're available around noon, join us in the museum's Wason Amphitheatre for a proper Groundhog Day celebration with a real live groundhog and WAVY-TV 10's Jeremy Wheeler.  Can't make it during the day?  Come by at 6:30pm for a Groundhog Night celebration where you can meet the museum's groundhog and take in a planetarium show starring our groundhog buddy (also called a woodchuck, whistle pig, or land-beaver) which will teach you all about the Earth's relationship with the Sun and Moon.  A guaranteed great time for all!  Daytime event included with museum admission; Evening event $5 adults $4 kids (planetarium show $2 extra).  Members save $1 on the evening event!  Get more information at our website

However you decide to celebrate, have a wonderful Groundhog Day!
Until next time,
Carpe Noctem!

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