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 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

4 Comments

Gwendolyn C Blackman February 2, 2019 at 6:45 am

As someone who has spent big money to have my resident groundhogs deported to another area only to have another couple replace them, I tend to despise the critters. However, I did enjoy the article.

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Having grown up in a Protestant Church, I had no idea of such days called Candlemas. I’ve seen it in diary excerpts and history books. Thanks for pointing it out. Put on your booties kids, it COOOLD out there……7 degrees on the NH coast.

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We have three official community groundhogs in the area where we live and this year, for the first time ever, all three agreed with each other AND with Punxsutawey Phil — winter is over, spring is here. (We’re probably due to get six feet of snow driven into every nook and cranny by a howling gale. It’s not nice to play games with Mother Nature.)

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Here on our cozy “Island in the Pacific” of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, we are enjoying (?) our first snowfall of the year! Having come from the prairies, I HATE the stuff! Groundhog or no groundhog…my wife’s flowers are coming up and the trees are budding, that’s a good enough sign of spring for me! Thanks for the early spring Phil!!!

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