Thursday, February 5, 2009

MCC Groundhog Day Swiss: In Honor

A new month brings a new tournament at the club. February is a treacherous month in New England and to most folks, the least favorite month of the year. But February, the shortest month of the year, is a month in which we celebrate a rich collection of mythology, legends, science and history. Just to name a quick few: St. Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day, Leap Year, Groundhog Day, and Black History etc...

Over the years, the Metrowest Chess Club has named its February tournaments in honor of such celebrated traditions and folklore. The most recent tournaments have been the MCC Valentine Swiss and the MCC Leap Year Swiss. This year, it is named after rodent folklore – MCC Groundhog Day Swiss.

Personally, I’m off to a good start in this particular tournament with a decisive first round win. However, rather than blog about the game this week, I’ve decided to do a little research into the history of Groundhog Day and provide a little light reading for the local chess reader who may be playing in a tournament named after this hokey folklore. Enjoy!

Groundhog Day
We all know how the story goes; every February 2nd people gather around the burrow of a groundhog, awaiting for the creature to emerge and witness whether or not the groundhog fails to see its shadow. According to legend, if he does see his shadow, the fury little thing retreats to the warm comforts of its burrow signifying another 6 dreadful weeks of winter. Otherwise, the groundhog ventures out of its burrow, thus indicating that winter will soon come to an end.

In North America, this tradition is annually celebrated both in the United States and in Canada. The most famous of groundhogs is good ole Punxsutawney Phil; where the good folks of Punxsutawney Pennsylvania gather around, anxiously waiting for Punxsutawney Phil to emerge from its heated little burrow in hopes of forecasting a short winter. Unless, of course, you’re an avid skier!

So what drives this funky folklore? There are many theories, but the one that makes the most chronological sense to me is one where we need to go back to ancient times where mythology thrived and was a major influence on the cultural make-up that catered societal practices. And what great ancient empire had the greatest influence on western culture? Well, that’s an easy one; the Roman Empire!

The Roman legions, during the conquest of the northern country, supposedly brought this tradition to the Germanic tribes, who picked it up and concluded that if the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal, the hedgehog, would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of bad weather, which they interpolated as the length of the "Second Winter." [2]

Germans would recite:

For as the sun shines on Canlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until the May.

Candlemas Day is a Christian practice known as the “Feast of the Presentation at the Temple” celebrating an early episode in the life of Jesus and falls around the 2nd of February. At the time of Roman conquest over the Germanic tribes, Christianity was the official religion of Rome.

In the days of early European Christians celebrating Candlemas Day, the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. The event marked a milestone in the winter and the weather on that particular day was important. According to old English Song: [2]

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

Fast forward to the European migration of North America, and it should be noted that Pennsylvania's earliest settlers were Germans and they found groundhogs to in profusion in many parts of the state. They determined that the groundhog, resembling the European hedgehog, was a most intelligent and sensible animal and therefore decided that if the sun did appear on February 2nd, so wise an animal as the groundhog would see its shadow and hurry back into its underground home for another six weeks of winter. [2]

An early American reference to Groundhog Day can be found in the diary entry, dated February 5th, 1841 of Berks County, Pennsylvania of storekeeper James Morris: [1]

"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."

As of today, in our modern tradition, the largest Groundhog Day celebration is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where crowds as high as 40,000 people have gathered to celebrate this time honored tradition mixed in lore and religion.

And now you know, from the point of this writer, how Groundhog Day came to be in the United States where organizations like our very own chess club decorate their events in honor of this legendary holiday.

1. History Society of Berks County, Reading, Pennsylvania