Tor, good morning, it’s your tenth birthday. It’s also Groundhog Day. There aren’t any groundhogs where I am, so please go out and watch a groundhog’s burrow for me.
Have you found a groundhog’s burrow anywhere in that big farm you live on? They do live in Virginia, as well as New England and the Midwest and Canada, and they like to live in among the trees or bushes. But I suppose that when you find a burrow it’s not very likely that the groundhog will be just standing there. If he has come out, and has been alarmed by you, you may very well see him standing upright on his hind feet, keeping a lookout; but if there’s no groundhog to be seen, it will be difficult to know whether he has peeped out and gone back in or has just gone off somewhere.
The story is that if the groundhog comes out this morning and sees his shadow, he goes back into his burrow and back to sleep, because he knows that the next six weeks will be cold. So it doesn’t really matter about the groundhog – you can be the groundhog, just go out and see if you can see your own shadow. If you can, the day is sunny, but the next six weeks will be cold.
That does makes some sense. Where I am, the sky is blue, so it’s darn cold, because there are no clouds to stop the heat from rising up into space. We’ll find out whether it really lasts like that for the next six weeks.
Groundhogs are also called woodchucks. See if you can say this tonguetwister:
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Woodchucks don’t really chuck wood. Early American settlers heard the Indians calling them wuchak or uchak. They hibernate, deep in their burrows, through the winter; most of them don’t come out until March or April, but Virginia is toward the south of where they live so some of them may wake as early as February.
But what’s so special about February 2, apart from being your birthday? Nothing, probably, for groundhogs. But the day has an older name: Candlemas. It is the fortieth day after Christmas (if you include Christmas Day itself), so in the Christian calendar it is the anniversary of the day when Joseph and Mary took their forty-day-old child Jesus to Jerusalem for a ceremony in the temple. In some churches, candles used to be given out for poor people to use through the rest of the year, and in other churches there are still processions with candles.
This is a picture from To Know the Stars, showing that the hottest part of a flame is blue. (And the hottest stars are blue.)
“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go, Winter, and come not again.”
That old rhyme shows that people in England had this idea about the weather before they came over to America and saw groundhogs.
The day is the fortieth day from Christmas, but another thing about it is that it is half way between the midwinter solstice (December 21) and the spring equinox (March 20). Or nearly so: the more exact half way point would be February 4. There’s a bit more than another forty days or six weeks or a month and a half to the spring equinox.
The four main dates in the year, if you’re talking about the seasons and how much sunshine there is, are the winter solstice, December 21, spring equinox, March 20, summer solstice, June 21, and autumn equinox, September 23. They used to be called the Quarter Days, and used to mark the times when people had to do things like paying their rents and debts and taxes and servants. The dates weren’t exactly the same as the solstices and equinoxes, which people didn’t know scientifically, but were at festivals near those times: Christmas Day, Lady Day, St. John’s Day, and Michaelmas.
And half way between those Quarter Days were the four Cross-Quarter Days. Candlemas was the Cross-Quarter Day between winter and spring. (The others were May Day at the beginning of May, Lammas at the beginning of August, and All Hallows at the beginning of November.)
So we’re about half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and it seems quite likely that people would sometimes notice the weather changing about now.
Here’s what’s really happening. At the winter solstice in December, the Earth as it traveled around the Sun had its north pole leaning away from the Sun, so we in the northern hemisphere had the least sunlight. At the spring solstice in March, the Earth will have come to the place where it’s sideways to the Sun, so the north and south hemispheres are getting equal shares of sunlight.
And now we’re half way between.
It’s morning in eastern America (9 AM). The thick arrow shows the way the Earth is traveling. The arrow on the equator shows how far the Earth spins in one hour. The Sun at the December solstice was overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn; now it’s a bit farther north. At the March equinox it will be overhead on the equator.