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What is the history and origin of Groundhog Day?

Groundhogs Day traces its origins back centuries to an old German tradition that would predict the coming of spring or a prolonged winter.

Groundhogs Day traces its origins back centuries to an old German tradition that would predict the coming of spring or a prolonged winter.
Anthony Quintano

For those who live in northern climes the coming of warmer springtime weather is looked forward to. Knowing when that will happen is anybody’s guess, but some believe there are animals that can augur the coming of spring or the continuation of winter.

The most famous of these weather-to-come oracles is Punxsutawney Phil, immortalized in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. Although using groundhogs to predict how long winter will last pre-dates the first recorded Groundhog Day celebration, the use of these particular critters began with German and Dutch immigrants to America.

European roots of Groundhog Day

Groundhogs are one of several animals that hibernate during the winter, awaking from their slumber when spring arrives. Thus it makes sense to look to them and their other hibernating peers in the animal kingdom to divine when warmer weather will be expected to stay. In Germanic parts of Europe, bears were originally used but upon becoming harder to find due to dwindling numbers, badgers made for a good substitute.

The Christian festival of Candlemas was the official end to the Christmas period in medieval Europe. It falls on 2 February, and people would use the weather and how the animals reacted on that day to foretell when winter would come to an end. If the weather was sunny and a badger decided to soak up the warm light, that would forebode a prolonged winter.

The origins of Groundhog Day in America

German-speaking immigrants to America brought the tradition with them, however the plentiful groundhogs became the animal of choice. Groundhogs, unlike badgers, will return to their burrows on sunny days. The superstition goes that when a groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, it will scurry back in and winter will last another six weeks.

A report in the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper from 1886 is credited as the earliest recorded mention of a Groundhog Day celebration. It read: “up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow.” But it wasn’t until the following year that the first official Groundhog Day celebration took place. Every year now thousands of people gather at a site called Gobbler’s Knob, where a group of local dignitaries known as the “Inner Circle” decipher Phil’s prediction. A record of all the predictions minus 10 have been kept.

How accurate are Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions?

The statistical probability of getting a coin toss right is 50 percent. But over his 135 years so far in the weather forecasting business, Punxsutawney Phil has been subpar in his predictions according to NOAA.

But then again, he’s held to a high standard as the most well-known groundhog, tasked with predicting the weather for the entire nation when he only sees his shadow, or not, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.