Groundhog Day Is Older Than You Think

“You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” —Phil Connors, Groundhog Day (1993)

In A Nutshell

According to more than 100 years of tradition, if the groundhog so affectionately named “Punxsutawney Phil” sees his shadow on February 2, he’ll flee back into his burrow for six more weeks of winter. Phil’s been at weather forecasting for more than a century, and the tradition started in the United States with German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it turns out that the roots of Groundhog Day lore can be traced back to the early Christian days of Candlemas and the Roman expansion into areas that are now known as Germany.

The Whole Bushel

Every February 2, people across the United States will be looking to a furry little weather forecaster in a small Pennsylvania town. That’s the day that Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow to check the status of the spring. If he doesn’t see his shadow, that’s a sure sign that winter is on its way out and spring is just around the corner. If he does see it, though, it’s said to be a bad omen and he’ll run back into his burrow for six more weeks of snow and cold temperatures.

It’s an endearing tradition, whether you believe in the forecasting powers of the groundhog or not. And it’s surprising just how far back the tradition dates.

Punxsutawney Phil himself is a relatively recent addition to the legend. An 1886 creation of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club (which originally hunted and grilled groundhogs instead of promoting them), Phil’s job was inspired by ancient beliefs that were brought to the United States by German immigrants. The area of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania was settled by a large number of Germans, who brought their traditions of using animals to forecast the weather with them.

According to German folklore, it was hedgehogs that were the best at predicting the weather. But, since there weren’t many wild hedgehogs in Pennsylvania, that honor got transferred to the groundhog. Groundhogs have a very similar pattern of hibernation and waking to hedgehogs, and tended to make their first appearances of the year around the same time as hedgehogs did.

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The whole thing started with an old saying from the early days of Christian Europe. It was said that if there were clear skies and sun on Candlemas Day (February 2), there was still cold weather to come. Candlemas Day marked the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and it was traditional to light and bless candles on that day.

When the Romans were marching on their relentless quest for expansion throughout Europe, they brought the saying with them into what’s now known as Germany. The Teutons picked up on it, and took the reasoning one step further. If it was sunny, they figured, animals were going to cast their shadows. And if they saw their shadows, they would know whether they should start preparing for the spring or if they should return to their dens and continue to hibernate for another month.

So far, Punxsutawney Phil’s success rate is only at about 39 percent . . . which is probably slightly better than more traditional weather forecasters. But that still doesn’t stop thousands of people from descending on the poorly named Gobbler’s Knob to see Punxsutawney Phil make his yearly prediction. It’s not uncommon for crowds of anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people to appear on the hill to find out whether or not spring is on the horizon.

Phil also isn’t above using his position to get some political activism going. In 1981, he wore a yellow ribbon in tribute to the hostage crisis in Iran. And during Prohibition, he made it well known that the country was going to be in for 60 more weeks of winter if he wasn’t allowed a drink.

Show Me The Proof

National Weather Service Forecast Office: Groundhog Day
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club: Groundhog Day History
LiveScience: Groundhog Day: Phil’s Myth Stretches Back Centuries
LiveScience: The History, Hibernation and Folklore Behind Groundhog Day
Featured photo credit: Silvers Family

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