Editor’s Update: Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow on the morning of February 2, 2024, predicting an early spring.
GREENWICH, N.Y. — Today is Groundhog Day! On this day hibernating rodents reportedly wake up to look for their shadow and predict when the spring will arrive. How did this curious celebration come about? Read on to find out more.
For starters, the groundhog is a type of ground squirrel found in North America. Growing to around 1.5 to 2 ft long and weighing around 13 pounds groundhogs are a larger member of the ground squirrel family. These creatures live in mainly wooded areas and spend much of their time in a system of subterranean tunnels that they dig. As herbivores, they eat a variety of fruits, grasses, plants, and tree bark. Their appetite for these food sources often makes them a nuisance to farmers and gardeners each year. The groundhog goes by a variety of names based on regional vernacular some of which include woodchuck, marmot, whistle pig, monax, wood-shock, land beaver, and more.
The origins of Groundhog Day come from a combination of several celebrations that historically occurred on February 2nd. As part of their pagan religious practices the Celts, the ancient inhabitants of Ireland, the British Isles, and parts of continental Europe, celebrated several seasonal “turning point” days throughout the year. February 2nd is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. To the Celts, the day was considered the first day of spring and was commemorated with a festival called Imbolc. Little is known about how it was celebrated, but Imbolc is believed to have had an association with sheep milk and involved the burning of effigies.
These turning point days were so well-known in parts of Europe that after the establishment of Christianity, many of the formerly pagan Celtic holidays were reworked and incorporated into the church calendar. In the Medieval church, the holiday of Candlemas was observed on February 2nd. Candlemas was a feast that celebrated the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The day involved people bringing candles to be blessed by the church which would bring light and warmth for the remainder of the winter.
Through time both holidays became associated with the weather. Imbolc had agricultural tones to it as it is thought to have coincided with the start of the sheep breeding season. The day involved farmers longing for good weather for the growing season and fishermen repairing their boats. Similarly, Candlemas was marked as a day of weather prognostication. Steven Winick from the Library of Congress dug up a few proverbs and sayings regarding the holiday and one from the 1500s says “Men were wonte to discerne by Candlemas day what wedder shulde holde.” Another verse he found from 1678 reads:
If Candlemas day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight.
If on Candlemas day it be shower and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.
The use of animals to determine the weather in early February comes from a range of sources too. One comes from a German custom called Dachstag or “Badger Day.” Almost identical to Groundhog Day, German folk tradition holds that on Candlemas Day badgers come out of their hibernating holes. If they see their shadow then winter will prevail for longer. If not, spring will arrive early. Another variation says that it is a hedgehog that emerges from its sleep to look for its shadow.
It is believed that this tradition made its way to America with a wave of German immigrants, the Pennsylvania Dutch, who settled in Pennsylvania from the late 1600s through the 1700s. However, badgers are not as common in the Eastern United States, so the more common groundhog replaced the badger in the American version of the tradition. Groundhogs naturally come out of their dens in early February to introduce themselves to potential mates before going back to sleep and reemerging in the spring. This may have played a role in incorporating the groundhog as well.
Another source of influence may have been from local Native American tribes. The groundhog was significant to the Delaware Nation and the groundhog Wojak was considered to be a great-grandfather of the Delaware Nation. The Cherokee also have legends involving the groundhog. The earliest known mention of groundhogs predicting the weather in America in February dates to 1840 when a Pennsylvania shopkeeper wrote in his diary, “Today the Germans say the groundhog comes out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he returns in and remains there 40 days.”
The most famous Groundhog Day celebration occurs in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney is derived from a Delaware word meaning “town of the sand flies.” The first official Groundhog Day festivities began in 1887. Clymer Freas, the editor of the local newspaper the Punxsutawney Spirit, organized the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and the annual tradition of walking to Gobbler’s Knob (the official groundhog’s home) and bringing out the animal for his prediction. For the first few decades, the event also featured a groundhog hunt and the eating of groundhog meat which was considered a Punxsutawney specialty!
Over time the hunt portion was done away with and the ceremony evolved into what it is today. In the 1960s the groundhog was given the name Punxsutawney Phil. During the annual ceremony members of the Groundhog Club called the “Inner Circle,” dressed in tuxedos and top hats, consult with Phil in a language called “groundhogese” (a.k.a. Pennsylvania Dutch) before declaring his prediction.
By the early 1900s, the event in Punxsutawney was mentioned in wider-reaching newspapers earning Phil more notoriety. He was featured on the Today Show in 1960, paid a visit to President Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1986, and was seen on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1995. However, what really grew the popularity of Punxsutawney’s groundhog celebration was the 1993 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The movie which portrayed weatherman Phil Connors’ repetition of the same day over and over led to an increase in Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day attendance (close to 30,000 visitors in some years) and the coining of “Groundhog Day” as a slang term used when a person experiences déjà vu.
While Punxsutawney Phil may be the most famous, there are many other marmot meteorologists who make predictions each February 2nd. Washington, D.C. has a ceremony with Potomac Phil every year. New York City relies on Staten Island Chuck. Ohio is home to both Buckeye Chuck and Thistle the Whistle Pig. Head south and you will find the dignified sounding Sir Walter Wally in North Carolina, General Beauregard Lee in Georgia, and Pierre C. Shadeaux in Louisiana. In Canada, Wiarton Willie is the most famous groundhog forecaster. Much like Punxsutawney, the town of Wiarton, Canada has become synonymous with its annual Groundhog Day festivities.
What will Phil and his fellow forecasters predict this year? We will have to wait and see. Although, Punxsutawney Phil only has a 40-50% success rate when it comes to predicting spring’s arrival, so you may want to get a second opinion. Regardless, this silly and somewhat strange tradition appears here to stay continuing a centuries-long practice of pausing in mid-winter to look ahead to the coming spring.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.