070202.Widcombe, The Groundhog

February 2, 2007 at 12:03 AM | Posted in Architecture, Bath, Monuments and Memorials, people, Sculpture, somerset, Widcombe | 3 Comments

Happy Groundhog’s Day.

Groundhogs are nocturnal and hibernate. They’re ambidextrous and bilingual. They’re cuddly and carnivorous.
Or at least that knowledge carried me through over twenty years of my life; helped me survive, or at least didn’t hamper it.
Oh, and I knew one other thing: Groundhog’s Day is celebrated in the US and Canada to mark the death of King William III of England (1650-1702).
A Brief History of What the H-ll I’m Talking About:
Willy was the last king of England to lead his troops into battle and had several horses shot out from under him. How great a military leader was he? I don’t know. He made interesting decisions. One of his more famous near-death experiences happened while he was on the front lines during a campaign against the Catholic forces of the deposed King James II. For reasons unknown, he decided to sit down and have a picnic. Some Irish sharpshooters spotted him, took aim and fired. He went down. Although, as it turned out, reports of his death were premature since it wasn’t the Irish who killed him but the groundhog!

William III was originally William of Orange, who had a fair claim to the English throne but not as good as his wife, Mary II, and certainly not as good as Mary’s brother, King James II. The issues at stake: England was decidedly Protestant at this time but James and his wife Mary of Modena were virulent-Catholics. Thankfully, they were childless…until Mary of Modena took a bath in Bath (see tomorrow’s post). She became pregnant and gave birth to the Catholic heir, the future Bonnie Prince Charlie—the Great Pretender. After she had given birth and it seemed that England would again be ruled by Catholics, the English Parliament invited Mary and her husband’s Dutch army to overthrow the English king and take the crown.

Without a shot being fired, James II fled to France and the Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution produced a new queen Mary (III) and her consort, William. Willy wasn’t satisfied with being merely Mary’s husband and demanded the crown as well. As a condition, none of his children who weren’t produced with the Queen would be allowed to rule, but that he could remain king after Mary died…and he did.

So here’s the deal. He crushed a lot of peoples who rebelled against him. And while he had a good time picnicking, many other people loathed him. Many of these ethnic groups that he had brutalized ended up emigrating to America, bringing with them their hatred of him.

So when William III’s horse tripped in a groundhog hole and threw him off, some people gave cheer. William then had difficulties recovering and eventually fell asleep in front of an open window at his palace. This wouldn’t have been terrible but he was old and caught pneumonia, passing away on 8 March 1702. When he was finally in the ground, people toasted the little fella’s hole that had doomed the monarch.

Anyway, I was asking some of my British classmates about this and they had never heard of Groundhog’s Day. OK, I thought, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to celebrate it. But then they threw me for a loop: what’s a groundhog.

What is a groundhog, I thought, “You know, a groundhog. It looks like a ground-hog, er, or a beaver-like creature. It’s big: huge. Teeth that can strip a tree in seconds. No. Teeth as sharp as porcupine needles, no the hog is as sharp as porcupine, looks like a porcupine? It’s ugly. Um, maybe it’s furry. Is it like a mole? Teeth, teethe…it’s ugly, it has teeth. They pull it out of its hole on Groundhog’s Day and if it sees its shadow then we get an early winter, or something. It’s faith-based. The weather is faith-based in America. We dress the thing up in a waistcoat and little tiny suit…sometimes…I think. Did I mention it has teeth?”

They listened to this for a while and when I had finished they politely smiled and said, “Oh, it’s imaginary.” Another one: “It an American tall tale, a myth?”

“No! no. It’s real. I’ve almost seen one once. They’re worshipped in Pennsylvania. Aren’t they in the UK? And if not, what the heck did the Willy’s hose trip over? Is it all a lie? What have we been celebrating?!”

“Well, we don’t have groundhogs….or gophers.” “Do you really need a reason, I thought in the States you all hate England?”

So, I was stumped. Let’s turn to Wikipedia, that great source of unaltered or edited truth.

>>>In 1702, William died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. It was believed by some that his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow, and as a result many Jacobites toasted “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.” Years later, Sir Winston Churchill, in his epic the History of the English Speaking Peoples, put it more poetically when he said that the fall “opened the trapdoor to a host of lurking foes.”<<<

>>> Around the fifth century, the European Celts believed that animals had certain supernatural powers on special days that were halfway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. Folklore from Germany and France indicated that when marmots and bears came out of their winter dens too early, they were frightened by their shadow and retreated back inside for four to six weeks. This may have been adopted by the Romans as Hedgehog Day. In Scotland the hedgehog has long been revered for its healing powers (as referenced in Robert Burns’ Ode to a Hedgehog).

The earliest known American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Historical Society of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania. The reference was made Feb. 4, 1841 in Morgantown, Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris’ diary: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”<<<

Holidays and observances

* Ancient Latvia – Veja Diena observed.
* Czech Republic – Hromnice.
* France – Crêpe Day.
* Paganism – Imbolc (in northern hemisphere), Lughnasadh (in southern hemisphere).
* Scotland – A quarter day in the Christian calendar (due to Candlemas).
* United States and Canada – Groundhog Day.
* University of King’s College – George III Day

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