Happy Bear Day

The Original February 2nd Holiday

By Robert F. Moss

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Today is Bear Day, perhaps the most anticipated animal-centric holiday of the entire year. (Except for Thanksgiving, of course, but I'm talking about holidays where the animal in question doesn't get eaten.)

But wait, I can hear you saying, isn't February 2nd Groundhog Day? That's just what those crafty Pennsylvanians want you to think. They've spent more than a century propagating the notion that weasley rodents can forecast the weather and that we should all make a huge fuss about it.

I’ve recently become aware of the true nature of that supposed holiday, and I can thank my wife for it. Back in the fall, while doing genealogy work in old newspaper archives, she stumbled across a most curious article in an 1867 issue of Amherst, New Hampshire's Farmer's Cabinet.

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That's right. Back in the 19th century, the holiday known today as Groundhog Day was actually called Bear Day. It's all right there in the Rev. M. Rockwell's book: if the sky is clear and the bear sees his shadow, he'll go back to sleep and hibernate until April 1st. If the sky is cloudy, he'll leave the den early.

It's actually a bit more complicated than that, though. It turns out that the roots of Bear Day lie in medieval Europe and the Roman Catholic feast of Candlemas, which occurred on February 2nd. A folk tradition evolved that on that day certain animals emerging from hibernation could foretell the upcoming year's weather. The animal in question varied from place to place—a bear, a badger, a fox, a hedgehog, a marmot.

The Germans were in the marmot camp, and when the Pennsylvania Dutch (“Dutch” as in “Deutsch”) came to the American colonies they transferred their tale to the European marmot’s local cousin—the woodchuck, a.k.a. the groundhog. In much of the rest of the country, the prognosticating animal was properly known to be the bear.

It remained that way until the early 20th century, when the groundhog gradually supplanted the bear, thanks in large part to the shenanigans of the residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a town that nobody can actually spell, much less pronounce. The first official Groundhog Day celebration in Puxnasawtoony was cooked up by local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who talked a bunch of his hunting buddies into donning silly hats and marching over to a field called Gobbler's Knob, where they badgered a groundhog into giving out weather tips.

Groundhogs, it turns out, are notorious liars. For starters, despite their name, they are quite good at climbing trees and, according to National Geographic, "are also capable swimmers." What's worse, this whole emerging-from-the-hole in February stuff actually has nothing to do with the weather at all:

After roughly three months of hibernation, evidence suggests that male groundhogs wake up early to prepare for the mating season. As early as February, they leave their burrows to scope out where females are hibernating. Then they go back to sleep for another month or so until it’s time to mate.

In other words, the town of Pucksatwany has constructed an entire holiday around a rodent scoping out his spring booty call.

Don't trust this varmint.
Don't trust this varmint. (Erin Silversmith via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why we would condone such behavior—much less enshrine it in a holiday—is beyond me. Bring back Bear Day, I say! We could all celebrate by settling in for a long afternoon’s nap. Here in the coldest part of the year, a pic-a-nic basket might not be quite in order, but a whole roasted salmon would do just fine.

I’ve even pitched the idea to Bill Murray that he film a sequel to his 1993 movie, which embedded the idea of Groundhog Day (and, especially, the theme of endless repetition) into Americans’ collective consciousnesses. Bear Day would surely be an even bigger hit.

I’m just waiting to hear back from Bill’s people, which I’m sure will be any day now.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.