Among all of the strange traditions that humans observe, Groundhog Day is probably one of the most bizarre. The day, which is celebrated in the United States and Canada on 2 February every year, revolves around a humble groundhog (also known as a woodchuck) foretelling the next 6 weeks of weather.
The theory goes that if the groundhog emerges from its burrow, sees its shadow because of the clear weather and scurries back into its den, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. If the groundhog emerges and doesn’t see its shadow because it is cloudy, then we will enjoy an early spring.
Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence to support the groundhog’s mystical powers. However, the tradition persists and has a fascinating history.
The beginning of February has long been an important time of year
Since it falls between the winter solstice and spring equinox, the beginning of February has long been a significant time of year in many cultures. For instance, the Celts celebrated the ‘Imbolc’ on 1 February to mark the beginning of the growth of crops and birth of animals. Similarly, February 2 is the date of the Catholic festival Candlemas, or the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.
The Candlemas festival is also known amongst the German Protestant churches. In spite of efforts by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, folk religion continues to link various traditions and superstitions with the holiday; most notably, there is a tradition that the weather during Candlemas predicts the start of spring.
The Germans added animals to the weather-predicting tradition
During Candlemas, it is traditional for the clergy to bless and distribute candles needed for the winter period. The candles represented both how long and cold the winter would be.
It was the Germans who first expanded upon the concept by choosing animals as a means of predicting the weather. The formula goes: ‘Sonnt sich der Dachs in der Lichtmeßwoche, so geht er auf vier Wochen wieder zu Loche’ (If the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole).
Originally, the weather-predicting animal varied by region and could be a badger, fox, or even a bear. When bears grew scarce, the lore became altered, and a hedgehog was chosen instead.
German settlers to the US introduced the tradition
German settlers to Pennsylvania in the United States introduced their traditions and folklore. In the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Clymer Freas, the editor of local newspaper Punxsutawney Spirit, is generally credited with being the ‘father’ of the tradition.
In the absence of hedgehogs, groundhogs were chosen since they were abundant. Their hibernation patterns worked well too: they go into hibernation in late autumn, then male groundhogs emerge in February to look for a mate.
It wasn’t until 1886 that the first report of a Groundhog Day event was published in the Punxsutawney Spirit. It reported that “up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow”. It was a year later that the first ‘official’ Groundhog Day was recorded, with a group making a trip to part of the town called Gobbler’s Knob to consult the groundhog.
It was also at this time that the town of Punxsutawney declared that their groundhog, then named the Br’er Groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. While others such as Birmingham Bill, Staten Island Chuck and Shubenacadie Sam in Canada have since appeared, the Punxsutawney groundhog is the original. Moreover, he is a supercentenarian since he is supposedly the very same creature that has been forecasting since 1887.
In 1961, the groundhog was renamed Phil, possibly after the late Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh.
The tradition expanded to include ‘groundhog picnics’
Celebrations were first carried out at the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge sometime from 1887. ‘Groundhog picnics’ in September were centred around eating groundhog at the lodge, and a hunt was also organised. A drink called ‘groundhog punch’ was also served.
This was formalised with the formation of the official Punxsutawney Groundhog Club in 1899 which, along with hosting Groundhog Day itself, continued the hunt and feast. Over time, the hunt became a ritualised formality, since the groundhog meat had to be procured ahead of time. However, the feast and hunt failed to attract enough outside interest, and the practice was eventually discontinued.
Today it is a hugely popular event
In 1993, the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray popularised the use of the term ‘groundhog day’ to mean something that is endlessly repeated. It also popularised the event itself: after the film came out, the crowd at Gobbler’s Knob grew from around 2,000 annual attendees to a staggering 40,000, which is nearly 8 times the population of Punxsutawney.
It is a key media event in the Pennsylvania calendar, with television weathermen and newspaper photographers gathering to see Phil being summoned out of his burrow early in the morning by men wearing top hats. Three days of celebration follow, featuring food stands, entertainment and activities.
Punxsutawney Phil is an international celebrity
Phil lives in a burrow in a manmade, climate-controlled and light-regulated zoo next to the town park. He no longer needs to hibernate, so is artificially summoned from hibernation every year. He travels in his ‘groundhog bus’ to schools, parades and professional sporting events as a guest of honour, and meets fans who travel from across the world to see him.
Promoters of the festival claim that his predictions are never wrong. To date, he has predicted 103 forecasts for winter and just 17 for an early spring. Records suggest that his predictions have historically been correct less than 40% of the time. Nonetheless, the peculiar little tradition of Groundhog Day is repeated year, after year, after year.