So, today is Groundhog Day. I sort of knew what the day was all about – at least I had watched in years past for the ritual in Punxsutawney, where they yank a poor groundhog out of his burrow in the middle of winter, and make up big rhymes about whether he saw his shadow or not. I did some research, so let’s go back to the beginning.
Way, way back, it was a pagan ritual. Many pre-Christian celebrations came from the worship of the sun, the moon or the seasons. February 2, as it turns out, is right smack dab midway between the Winter Solstice (around December 21/22 – the shortest day light of the year) and the Vernal Equinox (around March 21/22 – one of two equal daylight/nighttime days, along with its partner, the autumnal equinox, around September 21/22). In most places, by February 2nd, they have already turned the corner toward Spring, and so it was a minor ritual.
With the growth of the Christian faith, February 2nd took on the religious celebration of “Candlemas,” in which we celebrate the presentation of the Christ child in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke’s Gospel), and when both Simeon and Anna prophesy and celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God.
So, how did we get to groundhogs? Well, we turn to our friends, the Germans, who carried the signs of nature as a way of predicting the weather. If they were to see a badger (known in German as a Dachs, from where we get the dog, or hound that would hunt badgers – the dachshund) emerge from its burrow in the sunshine, it would predict more winter to come – either 6 or 8 weeks. When the Germans came over to America and settled in Pennsylvania, known as the Pennsylvania deutch (German) or as it turned out, Dutch, they brought the same predicting ritual with them. For a number of years, it was a time to go into the woods and wait and observe, to see if the badger, or as it turned out, a similar animal, the woodchuck, from the Marmot family, also known as a groundhog, would arise on a cloudy or a sunny day.
In 1887, however, as seems to be always the case, a newspaper editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, named Clymer Freas (kind of tough name!) talked a group of other businessmen into making the day into a celebration in their town. They would go up to an area of town known as Gobbler’s Knob, and “consult” the groundhog. It quickly grew into a fun, midwinter moneymaker for the town, as folks would come from miles around to see whether the groundhog indeed would see its shadow. Unfortunately, in earlier times, they would also have a big “groundhog” feast, after hunting the things in September, and giving the meat time to cure and marinate. That fortunately went by the wayside.
Up until about 1993, the celebration drew about 2,000 people/year, but with the movie that starred Bill Murray, nowadays, the town bloats up to somewhere around 40,000 people for the groundhog prediction. It’s amazing what people will do when they are bored in the winter, isn’t it?
One of the things about Groundhog Day is that it really varies, depending on where you live. For us in the North country, we’d really like it if indeed winter were ONLY going to be 6 weeks more – to have Spring burst out by March 15 would be a dream! But I guess that’s not the point – it’s more a way to celebrate something.
So, twelve years after the little regional festival started, my grandmother, Thele Lafolia Dow, was born on February 2, 1899. She was with us until 1984. Never to be called grandma, or grandmama – she was Grannie, a cantankerous, ornery, long-story telling and teasing mother of my father. There’s not enough room to tell all the stories about her, but I do remember that she claimed her birthday with the groundhog, almost with pride. When she talked about it, she would snort and grunt like a pig, which I was always a little taken aback by. Normal grandmothers bake cookies and read stories and impart tender and wise sayings. My grannie snorted, and argued, and bought Kentucky Fried Chicken when the whole family showed up, and I think drove my poor mother near-crazy during the many years when she lived with us. Grannie bought me an egg-poaching pan, and a clip-on tie when I was 9 years old, since she knew I like to cook. The pan was for making eggs, and the tie was there to spill the egg on…
When I went to seminary, Grannie either gave me or sent me $5 per month – I think she was proud, and felt this was her way of helping to finance my graduate education in theology. When I would come over to visit, then, she always managed to have me come into her room, where she would tell stories of her childhood, and also tell me about why we are baptized, and belong to church and as much else as she knew about, religion-wise. Quite a character to be sure.
I don’t know if she ever saw her shadow on her birthday, but even has she was getting closer to death… well, let me say that actually, Grannie was dying for close to 20 years. She always said that no one should live more than “three score and ten” – she lived to 85, but like I said, began dying around her 65th birthday. She said she wanted no real funeral, just to have read, “Crossing the Bar” at her graveside. After she died, I drove down to Logan, Iowa, where she was to be buried, and over the next two days, all sorts of relatives added more and more to what Grannie had requested at her death, and I ended up doing an entire funeral service for dozens of people, all crammed into the tiny funeral home at the cemetery. Typical Grannie.
So, on this cloudy Groundhog Day, I celebrate both the burrowing animal, and the source of dozens of stories, and black and white photos from her ancient camera – and my grandmother, who I knew well, but never well enough.
Cherish and claim your days with each other. They are more blessed than we ever will realize. Enjoy the shadow today – or not!
Word for the day: megalophonous. Pronounced meg-ah-LOFF-uh-nuss. It’s an easy word to break down, but as you might guess, it’s hard on the ears. From the Greek megalo, meaning “great or exaggerated” and phonos, meaning “sound, or voice,” the word together really means “big mouth,” or someone who, as my mom would say, has no “inside voice.” You know when you are at a restaurant, or even at a movie, when we used to go to those places, and you just happen to be sitting beside or near someone who doesn’t understand that they are no longer across the barnyard, but instead are indeed inside where cultured and polite folks don’t have to share all they are saying with the entire populace of the room. That’s someone who is megalophonous, or at least very megalophonic. I’ve never been a fan. Many pastor colleagues I know are quite the megalophs, and also make use of another interesting word: loggorrhea, which means to run at the mouth. Sometimes, to speak softly, and only say what you need to say, is a blessing to everyone around you…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.