“It’s Groundhog Day!”—The Interreligious History of A Holiday


Yesterday, February 2nd, was Groundhog Day, which in my childhood I knew as a quaint folk custom involving predicting winter weather based on a groundhog emerging from its burrow and then either staying out or retreating back into its burrow after seeing its shadow.

In 1993,the movie “Groundhog Day” directed by Harold Ramis quickly became one of my all-time favorite comedies, and so I celebrated the day with a viewing of the movie as I do every year.

1. Groundhog Day: From Imholc, to Candlemas, to American Folklore

Yesterday morning I learned from Anne Laurie at the Balloon Juice blog that Groundhog Day had its origin in Candlemas. Candlemas is a Christian holiday which celebrated the presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem. However, it was essentially a Christianization of the older pagan holiday of Imbolc, the day halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox in the Celtic calendar. Many Christian holidays including Christmas itself were celebrated on days of pagan holidays, and Candlemas seems to be part of this tradition.

Here’s an interesting folk legend of Candlemas: 

If Candlemas be bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year;
If Candlemas bring wind and rain,
Old winter shall not come again!

Now on Groundhog Day, if the groundhog supposedly sees its shadow, it will retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks. That’s literally the functional equivalent of the ancient legend of Candlemas, and is probably its origin as well, since Groundhog Day began as a Pennsylvania German custom in the 18th century, and they imported the Candlemas tradition from Europe.

So it went from being a pagan holiday to a Christian holiday to an American folk tradition.

2. Groundhog Day: The Movie

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of the movie, it stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, an egocentric weatherman from Pittsburgh. He is assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, together with his news producer Rita (played by Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott).

He loathes the assignment and can’t wait to get back to Pittsburg when it’s over. However, due to a freak snowstorm they have to return to Punxsutawney and the next morning he wakes up … and it’s Groundhog Day all over again. He is stuck in a time loop, but nobody else is aware of it. Because of this he first takes advantage of the situation, robbing a cash truck, seducing the women of the town, and generally behaving in a selfish and arrogant manner. He then tries to seduce Rita, but to no avail because she’s “not that kind of girl.”

Despondent, he now tries to escape the time loop through repeated attempts at suicide, but to no avail: he keeps waking up over and over again on the same day.  Finally he decides to reach out to Rita as a human being in a spirit of compassion and conquests, and tells her about what’s going on with him.  She is obviously skeptical at first, but his ability to tell her precisely what will happen at the next moment convinces her that something is going on.

Based on her advice to see this experience as a blessing and not a curse, he decides to reexamine his priorities and ends up helping the others in the town, rather than taking advantage of them. By the end of the film, he is the most popular guy in town, and Rita “buys” him in a slave auction after which he tells her as they lay in bed talking that he genuinely loves her.

Finally, the next day he wakes up … and it’s February 3rd and the time loop has been broken! The last scene, he asks her to stay and live with him in the town of Punxsutawney, the town that he had been trying to escape from the entire movie.

3. Groundhog Day: The Interreligious Symbol

Heather Parton, the Santa Monica blogger who goes by the moniker of Digby in her blog Hullaballoo, related an article that ran a few years ago in The Independent about Harold Ramis discussing the reaction to the film that came from various spiritual leaders.

The largest reaction he got was from two religions that would seem very different. He got calls from Rabbis saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon.   The Rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village, Dr. Niles Goldstein, said that Murray’s character is rewarded for performing what Judaism refers to as good deeds, or mitzvahs.

Then the Buddhist monks chimed in and said it perfectly expressed the notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape.

Harold Ramis pointed out that many Buddhists in the US started as Jews, because there is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and style between the two religions, which are focused more on redemption in life, rather than in the afterlife.

However, many Christians also found that the film contains themes within the Christian tradition, with the groundhog being an Easter-like symbol of hope for the renewal of life at springtime, whereas Catholics interpret the “time loop” as a symbol of Purgatory, which every soul must pass through before entrance into Heaven.

4. Groundhog Day: Cultural Legacy
Thanks to the movie, Groundhog Day has now become a symbol of two things in our culture. It can mean either an unpleasant, repetitive situation, such as when “Groundhog Day” became a term of military slang by those service members in Iraq to describe their tour of duty with its endless cycle of monotonous long periods of waiting between violent raids.

However, in its positive connotation, it has become a symbol of man’s spiritual transcendence of selfish and egoism to a state of selfless service towards others. The important thing is, you can’t escape that negative repetitive experience of your own Groundhog Day of your life until you make that journey.

Harold Ramis really touched upon a powerful image to turn a comic masterpiece into a cosmic one.

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