To the unfamiliar, Groundhog Day is perhaps one of America’s quirkiest traditions. Every Feb. 2, people wait for a large, furry rodent to see his shadow, and then predict the weather based on the animal’s actions. This year, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, citing calls of an early spring.
But the winter holiday has a long history rooted in everything from early Christian traditions in Europe to 19th century American newspapers. Here is everything you need to know about how Groundhog Day got its start.
The idea of Groundhog Day comes from an ancient Christian celebration known as Candlemas Day, which marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. On Candlemas Day, clergy would bless candles needed for winter and distribute them to the people, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s website says. Superstition held that if the day was sunny and clear, people could expect a long, rough winter, but if the sky was cloudy, warm weather would arrive soon.
The Germans then expanded on this tradition, introducing the hedgehog to the mix. They believed, according to the Groundhog Day website, that if the sun appeared and the hedgehog saw his shadow, there would be six more weeks of bad weather, or a “Second Winter.”
Groundhog Day in the United States
Many of Pennsylvania’s early settlers were German, and they brought this tradition with them, switching the hedgehog for the groundhog, which could be more easily found in their new home, according to the Punxsutawney site. Groundhogs, also called woodchucks, are large relatives of squirrels who hibernate during the winter in burrows, inspiring the seasonal tradition.
In 1886, the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper printed the first news of a Groundhog Day observance. The next year, everything fell into place. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club celebrated for the first time at Gobbler’s Knob, according to History.com, and the newspaper’s editor declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s official weather-forecasting groundhog.
What Groundhog Day is like today
Since then, the tradition has grown in popularity, boosted by Bill Murray’s 1993 hit movie Groundhog Day, with many other cities across the country holding their own celebrations. But none are as elaborate as the one that takes place at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania every Feb. 2. This year is Punxsutawney Phil’s (or rather his descendant’s) 137th prediction.
Tens of thousands of visitors show up for the event each year, with parties and performances in the night hours before Phil emerges at sunrise, according to the official website. A live stream of the prediction ensures everyone can observe.
Although an undoubtedly fun tradition, the National Centers for Environmental Information calculated in 2023 that Phil’s predictions were on average only accurate 40% of the time over the past 10 years.
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