It was late January 1984 when I first heard the term “Groundhog Day.” I was getting ready for the second semester of my freshman year at SUNY Oswego. “Groundhog Day” — what is “groundhog”?? Lots of things were still so unknown for someone who just came from Tokyo to pursue the college degree in meteorology and astronomy in rural Upstate New York. I don’t recall when I finally discovered the meaning of the day correctly but do remember wondering about this: this is about the same time when we celebrate the arrival of spring in Japan. Is there any relationship to that?
The question resurfaced and faded as Groundhog Day passed every year until I came across an article in the February issue of Astronomy Magazine in 2007. Yes, I did see a writing about Groundhog Day and its implication to the duration between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. To my regret it slipped through between my busy schedules then. So, when I saw the revised version of the article on Facebook this year, I was delighted!
The idea of Groundhog Day was brought to America by German immigrants, and the animal of choice in their old country was hedgehog, according to the author, Rich Talcott. Well, it makes sense as it has been famous as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition and that’s where Punxsutawney Phil resides. But my true interests lie in why it’s February 2nd every year, and Rich explains it as one of the four so-called cross-quarter days, which mark the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes. Ah, that’s Setsubun (節分)!
The Lunar Calendar was predominant in the Eastern Hemisphere until modern era. To my knowledge it is still in regular use in some nations including those in the Middle East. It is based on the movement of the Moon, that completes its cycle around the Earth in 29.5 Solar days. As time goes on, a half to one and a half days difference per month will result in considerable gap between the Lunar and Solar Calendars in terms of which month or season it is at one point of time. Ancient astronomers observed the sun’s location in the sky to invent some tools for farmers to follow for their field work – farming has been always essential to mankind throughout the history. They learned when the solstices and equinoxes happened, then divided the entire year into four seasons setting a solstice or an equinox at the middle of a season. So, the point which is equivalent from a solstice and an equinox was set as a Setsubun, that is a cross-quarter day in Rich’s word. Setsu, denoted by 節, means a season, and Bun, 分, a dividing point; all together Setsubun 節分 means where it divides two seasons. Precisely speaking there are four Setsubuns per year. However, the one between winter and spring has been what we customarily indicate when we say Setsubun. As is Groundhog Day, knowing a coming spring is the significant event in our lives thus we celebrate the day. It’s been always the fascinating fact that we, in the East, denote an end of a season at Setsubun so that a solstice or an equinox is the middle of the following season to the contrary a beginning of a season is either at a solstice or an equinox in the Western Hemisphere.
On the day of Setsubun, which usually falls on February 3rd, we throw roasted soybeans out of the openings of our house, doors and windows, to expel any evil souls, called Oni 鬼. Pictured here are the roasted soybeans in an oak container and paper masks denoting Onis. Oni comes in red or blue. A person in the family wears a mask and acts as an Oni, and the rest of us throw the soybeans at him/her in the hopes to eliminate any evil souls before welcoming new spring. The day after Setsubun is the first day of spring in our calendar called Risshun 立春. (An oak container like this is used to drink sake giving the oak flavor to the drink. Sounds familiar??)
When we look around the world, we notice that there is a broad notion of a “month” that consists of around 30 days, that makes me wonder if just about every culture and/or civilization once set the movement of the Moon as an indicator of time in life as well as the Sun. As we evolved, we couldn’t neglect the discord of those celestial bodies, so we had to find the way to compromise. Perhaps Old Germans, as well as other Europeans, figured out what we did in the East. Or there might have been communications between the West and the East in the past, and Groundhog Day and Setsubun might be the results of such. We, as humans, seem to share certain omnipresent senses regardless where we physically exist.
Incidentally, I was recently asked when the Chinese New Year’s would be this year. I would have never heard this question when I first came here over 30 years ago. I felt so amused that I responded by asking, “do you know when the next new moon will be?” The person who asked me the question looked startled. They are still with the Lunar Calendar, so the first of a month is always the day of new moon. Maybe it’s a handy trick for you to remember!
Note: If you are interested in knowing more of the astronomical facts concerning Groundhog Day, visit the blog or Facebook page of Astronomy Magazine.