I blame it on nabbing my kids’ news magazine in search of more positive stories than were in my own magazine. That’s how I learned about the history of Groundhog Day, which was just last Friday, Feb. 2, and found out that it includes many more creatures than just groundhogs — even some from the ocean.

Much like the solstice, Groundhog Day took its roots in ancient Europe. It apparently dates back to the 16th century. However, unlike the solstice, which is a pagan tradition, Groundhog Day began as a religious celebration known as Candlemas. This holiday celebrates the 40th day, end of the Epiphany season, the period following Christmas. In addition to the religious celebration, the day also served as an indicator of the weather that lay ahead. If it was sunny, that meant there would be 40 more days of winter. Later, Germans added an array of small animals to the mix, including badgers and hedgehogs, which are native there. That’s when the seasonal indication evolved not to depend on the day simply being sunny, but to it being sunny enough that a small animal could see its shadow.

The tradition evolved again when Germans came to the United States and found the native groundhog to be an appropriate stand-in for the familiar creatures that were part of the tradition back home. In an effort to keep the tradition going, they founded Groundhog Clubs that celebrated Feb. 2 every year with feasts and dances. One of the local papers, the Punxsutawney Spirit, based in one of the Pennsylvania communities that held these celebrations, wrote about them — hence Punxsutawney part of the name of the most famous groundhog. Where Phil comes from is a bit of a mystery. The town of Punxsutawney still has the biggest Groundhog Day celebration, one that has been occurring for 138 years!

Since the original tradition began, many locales beyond Punxsutawney have held their own Groundhog Day celebrations or adapted the holiday to fit with their own natural surroundings and culture. One of these is on the island of Nantucket, where Quentin the Quahog is the star.

Quahogs are the hard-shell clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) that often are used in chowder as opposed to the soft-shelled variety that are commonly steamed or fried. They live up and down the East Coast in the intertidal where they can be dug by hand. They typically grow to be about 3-5 inches across. You’ve likely seen their thick shells that often have a signature purplish edge. Quahogs are one of the species that are harvested here in Brunswick and are an increasingly valuable shellfish resource. In fact, that town has enacted a closure to harvesting quahogs for several months each winter in order to protect them from being exposed during the coldest temperatures.

Nantucket’s Quentin the Quahog tradition began in the 1980s and was just revived last year after a hiatus in the celebration. One question I had was Quentin’s longevity. Quahogs typically live about 10-20 years, their age being apparent in the number of lines on their shell much like rings on a tree trunk. But some quahogs have been known to live up to 40. So, it would be possible that the Quentin of 2024 was the same as the original Quentin. However, part of the Nantucket tradition is to consume the star of the day after he has made the prediction. The identity of the current Puxatawny Phil, who some claim to be the same as the original, is also a bit of a question mark since groundhogs only live to be 6 years old.

Another question about Quentin is how a clam makes a shadow. Instead of being shadow-based, the quahog tradition is based on squirting direction — left for more winter, right for early spring. This year, Quentin aligned with Phil, squirting right. This seems even more random than whether the day is sunny enough for a creature to see its shadow. However, even Phil’s track record is a little iffy; apparently, he has only been right 39% of the time as long as records have been kept (since 1887).

Regardless of the accuracy of these predictions, I love the idea of looking to nature itself to tell us what is going to happen in the natural world. I also love the idea that what happens in nature is, to some degree, out of our control and that we leave it to a shadow or a squirt to tell us what may or may not happen. These kinds of whimsical traditions are a way to bring people together from different places and cultures to get outside and think about their environment in a way that is valuable and not simple. Who knows, maybe Brunswick ought to start their own quahog tradition.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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