Every year on February 2nd, a ground hog named Punxsutawney Phil wakes up and comes out of his burrow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He then makes a weather forecast based on his shadow. If he sees his shadow, there are six more weeks to winter. If he does not, winter will be over soon. This strange tradition might seem to have no purpose or sense to most people. However, it has a long history and tradition that dates back to early American settlement days. It has precedent in European folklore and paganistic traditions.
It begins on a Scottish Candlemas-Groundhog Day
Candlemas is the ancient pagan celebration of the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was essentially the celebration of the return of light to the land after the long, dark winter months. Farmers could begin preparing their lands for the next spring season. For people who grew the food they ate, February 2nd was one of the most important days of the year.
However, farmers could never predict exactly what the weather would be like after Candlemas. Some years, it would be mild and they could begin working their lands quickly. Other years, the winter would last for a month or longer. These ancient people, desperate to find a solution, must have thought they noticed a pattern. An old Scottish couplet states: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”
Interesting, but where exactly does the groundhog fit in?-Groundhog Day
Ancient German weather legends featured many arcane and complex explanations for the unpredictability of the weather. One of these legends is an explanation for weather procrastination or when seasons are reluctant to change when they normally change. The badger or sacred bear was considered the animal that caused the weather to procrastinate.
When Europeans came to America, they brought this strange history of weather lore and paganistic rituals. At some point, these two points of reference combined but the animal changed from the badger or bear to the more local and more common groundhog. Now, if the groundhog (a holdover of the symbol of weather procrastination) came out of his burrow and saw the sun (a holdover from the old German couplet about Candlemas) he would go back into his burrow and winter would last longer.
This holiday seems to have been celebrated frequently in the German heavy area of Pennsylvania as early as the 1800’s, with one of the earliest references being 1841 in a dictionary of a storekeeper. It has lasted hundreds of years in North America but the celebration of Groundhog Day has died out in most places around the world.
Fun facts you may not know about Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day is also celebrated in Canada where a groundhog named Wiarton Willy makes their predictions.
The history of Punxsutawney Phil heavily favors harsher winters. In the 121 years records of his predictions have been kept, he has seen his shadow a whopping 97 times. He has only not seen it 15 times. The other nine predictions have been lost to history. Oddly, the National Climate Data Center claims that his predictions have been right 39 percent of the time. Not bad for a groundhog.
After the movie “Groundhog Day” was released, Punxsutawney became an even more popular tourist attraction than it was in the past. People began flocking all over the world to celebrate Groundhog Day here, with as many as 30,000 people crowding gathering on Gobbler’s Knob.
Naturally, groundhogs really can’t predict the weather. The weather is a massive, complex system that is hard enough for well trained weather men to predict. However, a little bit of traditional fun never hurt anybody. For example, Phil did not see his shadow in 2019. That very same day, a major winter storm was raging on the east coast and throughout much of the Midwest, burying some towns in as much as 20 inches of snow.