Signs and Seasons, Days and Years

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Groundhog Day – I wonder where this came from…

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I was recently investigating how to identify the spring equinox, and while studying this, an odd connection came to mind. You’ve heard of groundhog day, right? It has to do with a small animal coming out of his burrow, seeing a shadow, and deciding on the basis of that whether spring is here yet.

The equinox too can be identified by the presence or absence of a shadow. And when the equinox comes, it means that spring is just around the corner. On the lunar calendar, the equinox is used to determine whether a new year (and with it, spring) has begun or whether the old year (and winter) will continue for one more month. Back when the lunar calendar was in wide use, it was the religious authorities who evaluated this and declared whether the new year had begun. Even after lunar calendars were mostly replaced by solar calendars, the religious authorities still needed to be able to identify the equinox because of two significant calendar events, Passover and Easter, whose dates are firmly tied to the lunar calendar. It was also a religious authority, the Pope (Pope Gregory XIII), who called for the calendar reform in 1582 which gave us our present-day Gregorian calendar. The purpose of this reform was all about Easter – allowing it to continue to fall on the correct dates. Or more generally, to allow the spring months to continue to fall in springtime, the fall in the fall, and so on.

So the picture I see is of somebody important like the Pope emerging on a wintery spring day to check for a shadow and see if the equinox has arrived, and thus determine whether spring and the new year are about to begin. A mole with glasses who rarely sees the light of day – isn’t that how studious religious people are often depicted?

I wonder if groundhog day may have originated as a sarcastic commentary on all these things, from way back in the mists of time, maybe as far back as 1582. The calendar had become a public issue. They were about to lose 10 days of the year 1582 to accommodate the needed adjustment. And why? Just because the Pope said so. Just some incomprehensible issue about shadows and the start of spring.

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