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A Groundhog’s Day Call for Renewal

January 31, 2012

“If the Groundhog sees his shadow, it means that there are still six more weeks of winter.  If he doesn’t see his shadow, it means that spring is only six weeks away.”


Groundhog’s Day is by far my favorite holiday of the year.  Mom and I used to exchange cards and phone calls as a part of our own private observation of perhaps the silliest of national holidays.  Admittedly, though, we could never understand why it wasn’t a postal holiday as well.  In the days following the event, I would expect to see articles cut from the Bangor Daily, letting me know what was being said locally.  Groundhog’s Day was serious business for us.  We knew all about its roots in the European Candlemas celebrations, its origins as a festival with the Pennsylvania Germans, and we staunchly believed in the prognostications of Punxsutawney Phil, and not the foretellings of the cheap knockoffs of other towns and villages across the country.

Separated by more than 1600 miles of distance in recent years, with my being to the west of Corinth, Mom and I celebrated our little tradition with a little ribbing over the weather too.  In one card that Mom designed on the computer herself, she wrote, “Wake me when winter is over and Greg has stopped the snow dancing!  (FYI—He can’t dance!  We don’t get snow every time, so his dance must be wrong.  Happy Spring!)”

The only other person whom I was ever able to get to buy in to the celebration of Groundhog Day was my friend Uli Koenen of Germany.  I cherish her notes and messages from the days when we were at Middlebury just like my Mom’s.  While I don’t hear from Uli as often as I used to (since she has a family of her own now), I do hope that she shares my favorite holiday with her own kids.  It is nice to have traditions.

With all of that said, one is led to wonder about this particularly confusing holiday on the calendar each year.  Six weeks is six weeks, so what is the difference if the Groundhog comes out of his hole at all?

Maine winters are long and harsh.  Snowbirds, those who leave Maine for warmer climates each year, aren’t traveling because they enjoy packing up their lives and moving for a few months each year.  It is just that if you aren’t the kind of person who enjoys outdoor activities when it is below freezing outside, then a Maine winter would not likely be for you.  Having an escape route to a warmer climate just isn’t an option for some.  There are those hardy New Englanders who just accept winter for what it is and can’t even conceive of being any where else but “Home”.  My parents have always been among this crowd.  That isn’t to say, however, that they didn’t wish for milder temperatures when arthritis pains set in, or that the fear of falling and breaking something wasn’t an ever and present danger.  My Dad built my Mom a ramp for the front of the house last summer, just to make the point.

In short, the difference between the six weeks following a shadow-spotting versus not seeing a penumbra is in how we perceive life and how we therefore respond to the turning of the seasons.  In reality, even for die-hard enthusiasts such as Mom and me, our perception is the only thing that changes; the seasons turn more or less as they always have, with deliberate pace.  Time marches forward inexorably.

When the Groundhog sees its shadow on a bright and sunny winter’s day, our spirits are lifted.  Perhaps the temperature has moderated, the winds have calmed.  A cloudless sky allows the sun-starved soul to soak the idea of renewal into our unconscious minds.  We feel, at a very primitive level, the turning of the seasons and the coming of spring.

When the prognosticating rodent can hardly find the opening of its burrow home; when the winds blow and snow falls and drifts; when Phil makes his appearance on days when spring feels no closer than it did weeks earlier on the Longest Night, Mom and I used to sit by the fire and dream over seed catalogs and garden plans for a season that felt very far away.  Deep down, we realized that the sun will shine again, and in every ray, every drip from the eaves and every bit of brown we noticed, we saw the coming of spring.  Hope is an eternal quality.  But, alas, we also knew that there will be more overcast days to come; more days of snow and winds rearranging the snowy landscapes.  We anticipated the inevitable days of icy rain melting, just barely, the frozen white blanket covering the ground.  We gloomily thought of the weeks remaining of dirty snowbanks, mocking us as we remember the groundhog’s “promise” of spring.  Six more weeks.  Just six more weeks.

In Maine, Groundhog’s Day was important too in that it marked a spot on the calendar where every New England Farmer needed to take stock of his efforts toward frugality that winter.  In a land where people tend to live the creed “Use it up, wear it out; make it do or do without”, Groundhog’s Day was a time to think about another old saying—half your wood and half your hay! New England farmers know that we are not close to the end of winter, no matter how cloudy February 2nd was.  Indeed, February 2nd is often the heart of winter.  If the farmer didn’t have half his hay remaining, there may be lean times for the cows before spring and fresh grass arrived.

Spring is a point on the calendar, a tide that ebbs and flows as the year turns but it is also a feeling that lifts our spirits in renewal.  It comes first with the promise hidden in the first swelling of the buds on the trees, with the movement of the birds towards their summering grounds, and with the underground stirrings of sleepy animals and plants.  It bursts forth with the joy of the first hints of green and gathers momentum as the cold winds and rains make way for gentle breezes and quiet showers of the month of May.

This year, my family decided essentially to cancel Christmas.  Not a decoration was hung, and no celebration took place.  The cloak of sadness was simply too oppressive given my Mother’s passing just days earlier.  We treated the day like any other ordinary day, despite my Mother’s love for the Christmas holiday.  We decided that we could start over in our observance of the holiday next year.  My Mom had already begun buying gifts for us before she turned ill in late October.  She always had a good head start on the holiday.  As Christmas approached, Mom instructed my sister to wrap the gifts she had gotten for me, and I was to wrap the packages intended for my sister.  Christmas was not to lose all of its magical charm.  Unable emotionally to open gifts on Christmas morning, I mailed myself the box of wrapped presents.  I would open them for the next holiday that Mom and I enjoyed together—Groundhog’s Day!  Why not share in the joy Mom knew her gifts would bring, but on a day where hope and internal peace could be found?

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent,” stated famed French author Victor Hugo.  As my Mom confronted her final days, she asked that I put her favorite CD on the machine.  After a few days of intense rain, unusual for Maine in December, the sun shone brightly through the bay window behind her head.  Though she was in very poor health and felt it, she mouthed the words of this song as it played.  I can never know what Call she was answering, nor what Journey upon which she was about to embark, but as I listen to the same song today and reflect on the fun that she and I had over the years celebrating our nation’s silliest holiday, I invite you to set sail with me on life’s Greatest Journey together.  Join Mom and me in listening to this triumphal piece by Celtic Woman.  Join me in answering a call for renewal this Groundhog’s Day and every day.  And if you should feel inclined, feel free to send me a card celebrating the best of all of our holidays.

The Call

Celtic Woman—The Greatest Journey

Sometimes in this life we hear

Calling from somewhere

Sometimes it is loud and clear

Sometimes it’s so softly there

Sometimes it is in the sea

Sometimes in the sky

Sometimes it’s in you and me

And sometimes it’s a cry

Open your heart

I am calling you

Right from the very start

Your wounded heart was calling, too

Open your arms

You will find the answer

When you answer to the Call

Sometimes it is in desire

Or in the love we fear

When the call keeps calling us

‘Till the fear will disappear

When we have no dance to dance

The call is in the song

When we have no voice to sing

Then the call is calling strong

Open your heart

I am calling you

Right from the very start

Your wounded heart was calling, too

Open your arms

You will find the answer

When you answer to the Call

Open your heart

I am calling you

Right from the very start

Your wounded heart was calling, too

Open your arms

You will find the answer

When you answer to the Call

Open your heart, your heart

And you will find the answer

To the Call!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 10:42 am

    Blessed Ground Hog day (Candlemas, Imbolc) to you as well!
    Thanks for sharing the “half your wood and half your hay” as well; I had never heard that, though it does make sense. My mind is beginning to wrap itself around the idea that it is time to inventory the seed stash, plan the garden and begin ordering what we will need to start soon (onion and leek seed) and a bit later (broccoli, cabbage….) even as I wish for the blanket of white to continue on a bit longer. The early open winter was depressing.

  2. wanda grant-poulin permalink
    February 2, 2012 11:47 am

    james, thank you so much for sharing this with me today, as well as everyone else. I wanted to tell you thank you for our visit while you were here, in maine. You are truely remarkable and i praise you for all you did not just for your mom, but your dad and rest of the family as well. I enjoy reading your writings and share some of the pieces with my own children. Keep the wonderful spirit going James. take care, wanda

  3. Estellika permalink
    February 6, 2015 4:24 pm

    Just Beautiful

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