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History of Groundhog Day

Amber Brandt  |  February 01, 2021

Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day in the United States. If you ask most anyone, they’re familiar with the popular 1993 comedy film of the same name featuring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, but they shrug their shoulders about the event’s origins.

Many ancient cultures marked the beginning of Spring on the day that fell midway between winter solstice and spring equinox – Feb. 2. As Christianity spread across Europe, people began observing Candlemas Day, a feast commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. People would bring candles to the church to have them blessed by members of the clergy – believing they would receive blessings to last the long winter. European Christians believed a sunny Candlemas indicated another 40 days of cold and snow.

The Germans developed their own twist on the legend, determining the day to be sunny only if badgers or hedgehogs could glimpse their own shadow. According to the lore, if the hedgehog saw his shadow on Candlemas there would be a “second winter” or six more weeks of winter weather. As Germans migrated and settled in Pennsylvania over the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the custom along but chose a native animal as the figurehead instead – the groundhog.

The first official Groundhog Day took place in 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – inspired by a local newspaper editor who shared his idea with a group of local businessmen and hunters, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The men brought the furry rodent meteorologist to Gobbler’s Knob for the first time that year.

Tradition says if the groundhog comes out of his burrow, sees its shadow, gets scared and runs back, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. No shadow means an early spring.

Today, tens of thousands of people attend Groundhog Day events in Punxsutawney, a city of 6,000 people. The annual three-day festival is led by a local group of top-hat and tuxedo-wearing gentlemen who call themselves the “Inner Circle.” They speak in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect but claim to communicate with the groundhog in “Groundhogese.” The festival light-heartedly asserts that it’s been the same groundhog all along, and that he personally writes on the scroll they read aloud each year. Here are a few more facts about the festival:

  • Punxsutawney Phil is only right about 39% of the time; however, the Inner Circle are quick to blame that on “human error” when the president ‘misinterprets’ what Phil said.
  • There are other “weather predicting rodents” to rival Phil’s fame: Staten Island Chuck (who is reportedly accurate nearly 70% of the time), Birmingham Bill, and Shubenacadie Sam (from Canada).
  • Groundhogs (also called woodchucks) typically weigh about 12-15 pounds and live six to eight years. Phil is extra-large at 20 pounds.
  • Groundhogs whistle when they’re frightened or seeking a mate, so they’re also sometimes called “whistle pigs.”
  • Phil’s full name is “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” and many people speculate he was named after Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh.
  • Every summer, Phil is given a special punch to drink at the annual Groundhog Picnic which is said to extend his life another seven years.
  • Phil’s wife’s name is Phyllis.
  • During Prohibition, Phil allegedly announced that if he were kept from drinking alcohol there would be 60 weeks of winter.