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History of Groundhog Day-What You May Not Know

Cygnet Brown graduated magna cum laude from Argosy University. She is an author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.


Will He Or Won't The Groundhog See His Shadow?

I doubt there is a person in the US or Canada who does not know what happens on February second. The French Canadians call it Jour de la Marmotte . The Pennsylvania Germans call it Grundsaudaag, Murmeltiertag . We call it Groundhog’s Day. According to folklore, on this day the groundhog comes out of his burrow after sleeping since before Christmas to look for his shadow. If he sees it, we will have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, we will have an early spring. Modern celebration festivities include early morning rituals held to observe the groundhog’s reaction when he emerges from his burrow.

The Ancient Origins of Groundhog's Day

The tradition however did not start with our modern celebration. It started much earlier in European history. In ancient European culture, the badger or sacred bear was the animal which saw its shadow. This story originated with Imbolc. This Pagan festival was considered the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar also fell on February second and used a weather prognosticator.

Some ancient traditions marked the change of season at the cross-quarter days when daylight first started to show that it was overcoming the night at Imbolc while other traditions indicated that spring didn’t start until the day became longer than the night at the Vernal Equinox. This animal therefore was the arbitrator between these two traditions. Sometimes spring came at Imbolc and other times it waited until the Equinox.

When Roman troops conquered the northern countries of Europe, folklore says that they brought this tradition from the Germans or Teutons who adopted it as their own and determined that if the sun came out on February second that the hedgehog would cast a shadow predicting six more weeks of winter which they called the “second winter “. As the Catholic Church spread through Europe, Imbolc became Candlemas. Candlemas was a feast that remembered Jesus’ presentation and Mary's purification at the Temple in Jerusalem and was marked by a candle procession. Ties between the purification rituals and February also hark back to paganism .

Old English Candlemas Song

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Come, Winter, have another flight;

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Go Winter, and come not again.

Candlemas Traditions Come To America as Groundhog's Day

Pennsylvania Germans brought the custom to southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 1700s and 1800s. Germans were among Pennsylvania’s earliest setters saw that the ground hog resembled the hedgehog. The groundhog is a rodent belonging to the group of large ground squirrels. They decided that they would appropriate the same story about this creature. If he saw his shadow, he would return to his hole in the ground for another six weeks.

Groundhogs are marmots, a group of large ground squirrels. Also known as woodchucks, groundhogs grow up to twenty-five inches long and most live up to ten years in captivity. (An exception, according to his caretakers is Punxsutawney Phil who has lived more than 125 years thanks to a magical punch he consumes every summer). Other groundhogs eat succulent plants, insects and wild berries.

The first recorded American reference to Groundhog day occurred in a diary of a storekeeper by the name of James Morris in his diary entry dated February 4, 1841.

American farmers of the 1800s used to say of February second: Groundhog Day - Half your hay.

In other words, they knew that if they had used more than half of their stored hay by February second, they wouldn’t have enough hay to last the rest of the winter. They knew that no matter if the Ground Hog saw his shadow or not, the farmer had better have enough hay left.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

Punxsutawney Pennsylvania is well known for their groundhog that they have named Punxsutawney Phil” According to the Punxsutawney Spirit Newspaper, the first time the town observed Ground Hog Day was February 2, 1886. Clymer H. Freas, the editor of the local paper The Punxsutawney Spirit talked a group of business men and groundhog hunters, known as the Punxsutawney Groundhog club to commercialize the tradition. The men went up to a site called Gobbler’s Knob where that year, the groundhog saw his shadow. For his bad news, the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog club served groundhog as the Punxsutawney Groundhog club’s cuisine of choice along with a variety of other groundhog dishes and “groundhog punch” made of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice “and other ingredients. The Groundhog punch became the “elixir of life” that keeps Phil young and explains why the same animal can predict Pennsylvania springs for over a century.

A year later when US adopted Groundhog Day in 1887, Freas and his newspaper began promoting his town’s groundhog as the official “Groundhog Day Meteorologist”.

Over the years, the festivities in Punxsutawney were conducted by local dignitaries known as the Inner Circle. These men wear top hats and conduct the official proceedings in Pennsylvania Dutch.

The Groundhog in Film

Several films have included the groundhog. In Disney's 1930 Silly Symphonies short film Winter, Mr. Groundhog the Weather Prophet came out of his hole to predict the weather.

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1930 Silly Symphony-Winter

Groundhog's Day--The Movie

The 1993 comedy movie Groundhog Day is set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on this day. In the movie, Bill Murray plays the main character relives the day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. That year, the largest Groundhog Day celebration ever held occurred in Punxsutawney. The following years record crowds flocked to visit Gobbler's Knob in the normally quiet town.

Stephen Tobolowsky, who played Ned Ryserson, in the movie, visited the Groundhog Day Celebration in Punxsutawney in 2010. The writer of the movie’s screenplay, Danny Rubin, attended the celebration in 2013. In his speech to the crowd he said, “my how you have grown.”

My Favorite Scene in Groundhog Day

This Weather Prognosticator in Other Locations

Although the larges Groundhog Day celebrations occur at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, similar celebrations occur as well. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, at Quarryville in Lancaster County, the Anthracite Region of Schuylkill County,and the Sinnamahoning Valley of Bucks County other celebrations occur. There is also a celebration at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas which claims to be the second largest Groundhog Day celebration in the world. Because few groundhogs live in Alaska, Alaskans celebrate Marmot Day rather than Groundhog Day.

In Canada festivities occur in Wiarton, Ontario and the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park in Nova Scotia.

This wooly catapillar indicates a long hard winter.

This wooly catapillar indicates a long hard winter.

Similar Weather Celebrations

Every autumn since 1972, residents of Vermillion, Ohio celebrate their annual weather forecast with the wooly bear caterpillar in the Woolybear Festival. The tradition was that if the caterpillar had more orange than black, the coming winter would be mild. If more black than orange, then the winter would be harsh. According to tradition, if the insects have more orange than black coloring, the upcoming winter will be mild.

Orthodox Christians celebrate a similar celebration in Serbia on February 15 (February 2 on the Julian calendar to which they still adhere). They call this celebration Sretenje or the Meeting of the Lord. Here they believe that the bear will awaken from his slumbers on this day and if it sees its shadow it will get scared and go back to bed for forty more days. If it is sunny on Sretenje, winter is not over, cloudy, a good sign that winter is soon to end.

Germans celebrate June 27 as "Siebenschläfertag" or (Seven Sleepers Day. That day, If it rains, summer will be rainy.

In the U K, July 15, traditionally known as St. Swithun's day, where, if it rained, the next forty days and forty nights would be rainy.

Historic Groundhog Mishaps

Not all Groundhog celebrations have gone smoothly. In 2009, during New York City's annual Groundhog Day celebration at the Staten Island Zoo, a groundhog named "Chuck" bit and drew blood from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gloved finger while Bloomberg was coaxing Chuck out of his crate Five years later, in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio, dropped "Chuck" (actually Chuck's granddaughter, "Charlotte"). The rodent seven days later died from internal injuries. De Blasio learned his lesson because at the Groundhog celebration in 2015, Staten Island Chuck came out of his hutch that an elevator lifted onto the stage of his portable Plexiglass-enclosed habitat, while de Blasio watched from six feet away.

At the annual Groundhog day in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 2015, “Jimmy the Groundhog” bit Mayor Jonathan Freund’s ear while the rodents caretaker was holding him. The following day the Mayor issued an official pardon absolving the groundhog “of any perceived wrongdoing and charges” under any city ordinance. He went on to say that the groundhog had “created an international media sensation, thereby helping the world learn more about our great city.” Two weeks later, the Mayor lost the city’s mayoral primary election.

How Accurate are Groundhog Predictions?

Groundhog Day organizers say that the animal’s predictions are seventy-five to ninety percent accurate, but before you start getting out your spring attire, not everyone believes these glowing reports. A Canadian study done for thirteen cities over thirty to forty years found that findings of the rodenton Groundhog day was only 37% accurate. According to StormFax Weather Almanac and actual weather data kept since 1887, Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions were only correct thirty-none percent of the time. The National Climatic Data Center also said that groundhog forcasts were on average, inaccurate and the groundhog had “no talent for predicting spring’s arrival, especially in recent years.”

(I think meteorologists are just jealous.)

© 2016 Cygnet Brown


Cygnet Brown (author) from Springfield, Missouri on February 01, 2016:

MizBejabbers-A friend of mine told me that the groundhog here in Missouri is called Milton.

aviannovice Tomorrow its supposed have summer like temperatures and sun. I think that when the groundhog does come out of his burrow, he will think that he overslept!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on January 31, 2016:

The moral of the story is to leave the poor groundhog alone. If he or she wants to come out, he/she will make it so. Live long and prosper.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 28, 2016:

Neat article, and I learned something about the PA tradition that I didn't know, especially the groundhog club. Now many states are jealous of Punxsutawney Phil and have their own special groundhogs, which have proved to be no more accurate than the original.

We had our own special groundhog in my family. My mother's birthday was groundhog day, and my dad referred to her as his "little groundhog." We always asked her if she saw her shadow on her birthday. Even after we grew up and moved away, we would call and ask if we couldn't visit that day. She was good natured about the teasing.

Loved the cartoon!

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