The Sky This Week
U.S. Naval Observatory's Weekly Blog

Groundhogs, Badgers, and Bears -- Oh, my!

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs
01 February 2022

Crescent Moon, imaged 2016 December 30 from Mollusk, Virginia
with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR.

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week, coursing her way northward along the ecliptic toward the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle.  First Quarter occurs on the 8th at 8:50 am Eastern Standard Time.  Look for the slender lunar crescent a few degrees south of Jupiter in the evening twilight glow on the evening of the 2nd.  Luna ends the week approaching the Pleiades star cluster and the bright star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull.

February 2nd is one of those odd “non-holidays” that is widely observed throughout the U.S.  Popularly known as Groundhog Day, its origins lie in ancient astronomical folklore that was prevalent throughout many European cultures in medieval times.  We all know that there are four astronomical seasons that anchor the calendar.  However, each season also had a mid-point known as a “cross quarter” day.  These dates became the traditional dates for serfs to pay rent on their land to their feudal masters.  They were also important feast days observed by pagan religions and were especially important to Celtic and Germanic cultures.  As Christianity swept the old religions aside, the cross-quarter days were tied to Christian feasts and festivals that have endured to the present day.  Our Groundhog Day was known as Imbolc to the Celts, who celebrated a feast to the pagan goddess Brigid on February 1st.  The Christian tradition celebrated “Candlemas” on February 2nd, commemorating the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple for his purification ritual.  So how did a religious feast day become defined by the prognostication prowess of a hibernating rodent?  That tradition comes from Germanic observances in which weather lore met religious celebration.  In these traditions the emergence of hibernating animals under clear or cloudy skies served as a predictor for the arrival of spring-like weather.  Originally bears were the animal of choice, but as their numbers dwindled in northern Europe the badger became the chosen messenger.  When German-speaking people emigrated to America in the 18th and 19th Centuries they brought their tradition with them and settled in southeastern Pennsylvania, where badgers were scarce but groundhogs were plentiful.  The town of Punxsutawney began the annual observance of Groundhog Day in 1886, and they’ve been doing it ever since.

How “precise” is the large rodent’s annual prognostications?  The legend says that if he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter.  46 days will elapse between Groundhog Day and the vernal equinox on March 20th.  Simple math tells us that a tad more than six weeks fill that span, so he’s not too far off base.  However, the lengths of the seasons slowly change with time due to precession of the Earth’s poles, so the actual cross-quarter day actually occurs on February 4th.  Using this starting point the equinox occurs in six weeks and two days.  Six weeks seems reasonable to me.  Unless it’s cloudy on Groundhog Day!

As we’ve already mentioned, cross-quarter days mark the mid-points of the seasons, and we still observe most of them.  Groundhog Day and Halloween are the most widely observed here in the U.S., and May Day is still widely observed in Europe.  Lammas, the August Cross-quarter day, is no longer widely celebrated, but for many of us August 1st is the traditional stars of our summer vacations.  Perhaps Lammas still lingers?

Jupiter still lingers in the evening twilight, but his days are numbered.  By the end of the week he sets at the end of evening astronomical twilight, and by this time next month he will be hidden behind the Sun.  He gets one last fling with the slender crescent Moon on the evening of the 2nd.  He will next grace our evening skies in the middle of the upcoming summer.

You will find ruddy Mars below the bright dazzle of Venus during morning twilight.  The two objects appear low in the southeastern sky with Mars some 10 degrees southwest of Venus as the week begins.  By the week’s end Mars will be about 7 degrees south of his much more brilliant companion.
 
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