The History of Groundhog Day

groundhogEvery February 2nd, residents of the United States turn their attention to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A group of men in top hats put a groundhog on a log in front of hundreds of people and wait for it to notice or not notice its own shadow. If Phil the groundhog sees his shadow, we’re supposed to have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see it, winter is supposed to end earlier.

NOTE: A groundhog is also known as a woodchuck. It is a member of the family of rodents known as marmots.

A rodent in Pennsylvania, watched by men in top hats, can tell what the weather will be like for the next several weeks? Sounds strange to me! Actually, it is based upon the traditions of some of our ancestors.

Ancient Pagans celebrated the holiday Imbolc on the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox, which was considered the real beginning of spring. On our modern calendar, that day is February 2. Early Christians celebrated Candlemas on February 2nd, which marked the end of Mary’s 40-day purification period after the birth of Jesus.

Celebrating the real beginning of spring makes sense to me but what about the groundhog? It seems that different animals have been used as weather prognosticators in various times throughout history. In much of Europe, the bear was used the predict the weather. If a bear awoke from winter hibernation, it was considered to be an omen that spring would soon be here.

However, Germany used the badger as its prognosticator. An old diary from 1841 shows that German immigrants brought the Candlemas tradition of weather prediction to Pennsylvania but said it was a the groundhog that could predict weather. Perhaps badgers were rare in colonial Pennsylvania.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, knows something about weather forecasting. Its web site states:

“The trail of Phil’s history leads back to Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper. Inspired by a group of local groundhog hunters — whom he would dub the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club — Freas declared Phil as America’s official forecasting groundhog in 1887. As he continued to embellish the groundhog’s story year after year, other newspapers picked it up, and soon everyone looked to Punxsutawney Phil for the prediction of when spring would return to the country.”

In the years following the release of Groundhog Day, a 1993 film starring Bill Murray, crowds numbering as high as 30,000 have visited Gobbler’s Knob, a tiny hill in Punxsutawney where the ceremony takes place.

However, I don’t think any of those early-morning revelers have any idea of what next week’s weather will be.

groundhog-day-poster

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Christians, especially Catholics, still celebrate Candlemas, the feast of the Purification. There is a special Mass for this feast and Catholics can bring candles from home to be blessed for use in the coming year. Wikipedia says other Christian denominations do this as well.

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