It is well documented that during pagan times when nature worship was prevalent, the festival of light (which later became the Christian celebration known as Candlemas) marked the mid point of winter, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Throughout Europe, people believed that countryside animals held power to predict the arrival of spring. In England and France people believed it was the bear, while in Germany people observed the badger; knowing when to plant their crops just by watching its movements. In the 18th century, immigrants took their traditions and beliefs to America, where they began watching the humble groundhog who, it seemed, was their idea of the European badger’s closest American relative.
February 2nd 1882: a small town in the USA called Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, was where the first official trek was made by townsfolk to Gobbler’s knob, the home of the ‘now famous’ Punxsutawney Phil. Each year on February 2nd, the town’s prestigious groundhog club visits Phil for his annual prediction.
Now, according to wisdom, if Phil sees his shadow there’ll be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see it, then an early spring will come. And this seems to fit with the Candlemas rhyme recorded by Edith Holden in her country diary entry for early February 1906:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again
One hundred and thirty years on, and this year’s prediction from Phil came with little surprise, as I’d predicted six more weeks of winter, just days ahead of his proclamation. I had been looking for early signs of spring but they were slow to emerge. Snowdrops bloomed two weeks later than they had last year and the wild yellow celandines that grow freely along the old railway line still lay dormant. Wild arum reluctantly pushed through the carpet of dead-brown and decayed leaves; tardy-growing sheeps parsley leaves being the only other splash of spring green colour.
The weather for the month had been cold and dull with little sunshine to entice any nature out of an early hibernation. Odd days of snow flurries and temperatures that dipped well below freezing held back the tight buds on trees that had already unfurled a year ago. And major storm Doris caused considerable destruction; squally winds and heavy rainfall swept across the country bringing down trees and causing travel chaos and power outage.
But the sound of spring did resonate loudly for those who listened closely. The woodpecker drummed the rhythm of nature, sending a sound wave of fluent vibes through the crisp winter air.
Blue tits and great tits have already found mates and fly in perfect paired formation. Skylarks are seen high over head, singing their song of a summer yet to come. Spring is already calling to those who dare listen…..