If months had personalities, February would be the one with the lowest self-esteem. Not only is it the shortest month, it’s also — according to a Gallup poll — the least favorite of Americans. And it contains several quaint or quirky observances, beginning with Groundhog Day, Feb. 2.
Thanks to Weekly Reader and other elementary school publications, even we Hawaii kids learned about Punxsutawney Phil and his prognostication powers. I never questioned the origin of the custom; I just assumed it was one of nature’s wonders. It wasn’t until I grew older and met Mainlanders that I realized Groundhog Day wasn’t based on scientific fact. But even born-and-raised Michiganders like my first husband had no idea how they came to rely upon oversized rodents to predict the arrival of spring.
This year, prompted by a magazine article, which proposed retiring the obsolete ritual, I sought out the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, established in 1887, a year after Groundhog Day was first mentioned in the local newspaper. According to the club’s website, the legend began with the early Christian celebration of Candlemas Day on Feb. 2, when Christians would take their candles to church to have them blessed, thus bringing blessings upon their households for the remainder of winter. Encyclopedia Britannica dates this custom back to the fourth century. Over time, the day became associated with the length of winter itself, as in the old English song below:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.
The tradition spread through Europe and, for some reason, Germany added a hibernating animal to the mix. When German settlers arrived in America, they brought with them the belief that if a hedgehog saw its shadow on Candlemas Day, the cold of winter would extend for six more weeks. Finding no hedgehogs in the United States, the Germans chose the groundhog as their four-legged forecaster.
Since 1867, Punxsutawney Phil has emerged (or been pulled out) from his burrow every Groundhog Day, drawing thousands of visitors to his hometown. For those unable to make the trek, the Pennsylvania tourism website (visitpa.com) livestreams the proceedings each year.
At the other end of the month, and only every four years, is Leap Day, Feb. 29. We boomers remember it as Sadie Hawkins Day, an occasion when women were “allowed” to propose marriage to the bachelor of their choice. Sadie Hawkins was created in 1937 by Al Capp in his comic strip, “Lil’ Abner,” but the turning of tables on Leap Day is actually an old Irish tradition.
When introduced in the funny pages, Sadie was a 35-year-old spinster whose father, desperate to marry her off, organized a foot race for local bachelors. Whoever Sadie caught would become her husband. It might be hard for this generation to grasp, but the comic strip was so popular, it quickly became a real-life occasion. Sadie Hawkins dances, where young women were encouraged to take the initiative, became regular occurrences at high schools and colleges across the nation.
Sadie Hawkins Day is, amazingly, still observed in some circles, but in November, because that’s when the original comic strip was published. Proponents call it a day of empowerment, but most “woke” women denounce it as a hopelessly outdated notion. That is, if they’ve even heard of it.
There is one February holiday, no longer widely observed, that actually spawned something bigger and better. Feb. 12 is celebrated as Lincoln’s Birthday in only a few states, as most of the country combined the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington into the Presidents Day observance. But Lincoln’s birthday is the reason for February being designated Black History Month.
Dr. Carter B. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History Month, was born in 1875 to a pair of former slaves. In 1926, he proposed and established an annual observance of “Negro History Week” in February, because both Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass were born in mid-February. By the 1960s, the week had evolved into a monthlong celebration, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford proclaimed the first national observance of Black History Month, also called African-American History Month. A side note: the NAACP was founded on Feb. 12, 1909, exactly 100 years after Lincoln’s birth.
So, if months had personalities, February would have good reason to hold its head high, after all. Regardless of groundhogs and spinsters.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.