For a moment, imagine it is winter and together with your friends and family you’ve gathered in a busy town square. The air is very cold and you’re bundled up in big coats, warm gloves, and thick knit hats. Your cheeks are rosy red and you can see your breath fill the cold air whenever you breathe out. The sky is cloudy and snow is still standing in mounds around the square. Surrounding the square are news reporters, camera operators, journalists, and news vans … all waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Suddenly, you hear someone’s voice over the speaker and look up at the stage as a group of men wearing black top hats and coats gather around what looks like the stump of a tree.
“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye,” says the announcer into the microphone. “Today is February 2nd, and welcome to Puxatawney to celebrate Groundhog Day.” As he says this, someone on the stage reaches into a little door on the tree stump and pulls out a very furry animal called a groundhog, also known as a woodchuck. It is very plump and has black beady eyes and two long teeth in the front of its mouth, kind of like a squirrel.
They lift the groundhog up on the stump and one of the men pretends to listen to it intently. Then he speaks into the microphone. “The groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, has told us that there will be 6 more weeks of winter!” You and your friends, family, and the crowd around you begin to cheer. According to the tradition, the groundhog has decided that there will be 6 more weeks of winter instead of an early spring.
Now hold on a minute, why in the world is a furry animal like a groundhog being used to decide whether it will be a longer winter or an early spring? Well, that is a very great question and one I’d love to get the answer to, as well! This is a very funny tradition, but as we know, all traditions are rooted in some kind of history and their own reasons in the past. So, let’s explore the history of Groundhog Day and figure out just how this tradition came to be.
Like many of the holidays we celebrate today, Groundhog Day goes way back to early cultures that were very dependent on the seasons. So much of their life was dependent on when winter started and ended, when it was spring and whether they could start planting again. Winters were very hard for people that lived in cold places. First, they had to make sure they were ready for the long winters. They stored firewood and food. By this time, plants and crops were no longer growing and animals were hibernating. If they weren’t ready for winter, it could be disastrous for families and their tribes. However, if they were ready, they’d be able to live through the winter and have plenty of wood for warmth and food saved up to get them through to the warm spring.
You can imagine that when the weather warmed they were very excited for the melting snow and for Spring when they could get outside again, plant their crops, and hunt for food. In our day and age, with the change of the seasons, it’s fun to see the trees and the weather change. But because we have inventions like indoor heating and cooling and we don’t have to store our food, we don’t worry as much about surviving through the winter. Although, if you live in a place that is very cold in the winter OR very hot in the summer, like me, then you know sometimes it does feel like you’re just barely surviving the extreme hot or cold – and can’t wait for it to end!
Well, the beginning of February, for these early people was halfway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox – the longest day of the year and the day when day and night are of equal length. It wasn’t Spring yet, but they knew it was on its way and they were very interested in knowing if it was going to be a long winter, or a warmer one and whether Spring might start a little earlier!
The ancient Celtic people of Ireland and Scotland celebrated a Gaelic holiday called Imbolc, in anticipation of Spring. It reminded them that soon they would be able to plant crops and the animals they tended to would start giving birth again. Also, animals would no longer be hibernating so they could start hunting again.
Later, Christians later celebrated a holiday called Candlemas, celebrating Jesus Christ’s presentation at the temple 40 days after his birth, and the purification of his mother, the Virgin Mary. Many people still celebrate Candlemas and in some countries in Europe, one way the day is celebrated is by eating crepes!
But as you can imagine, it was an important time to start preparing for Spring and wondering how much longer the winter would be. As you may know, many mammals hibernate during the winter. Hibernation is when animals eat lots of food and get really fat before the winter and then sleep through the entire winter to save energy. In some cultures in Europe, people believed that hibernating animals such as the bear, foxes, and the badger, awoke from their sleep to check the weather to decide whether they should keep sleeping or get an early start on spring. There isn’t evidence that animals actually do this, but that was the belief at the time and so it became a tradition. For example, they believed that the badger, checked its shadow to figure this out. If the sky was cloudy, the badger had no shadow. If it was sunny, it saw its shadow, and then knew it would be a warmer winter and hopefully an early Spring.
Different countries at this time had different animals they watched to predict the long winter. In Germany, it was the badger. In Scotland, it was a snake. The Isle of Man, a large bird, and in Ireland, a hedgehog. An Irish author wrote:
“To see a hedgehog was a good weather sign, for the hedgehog comes come out of the hole in which he has spent the winter, looks about to judge the weather and returns to his burrow if bad weather is going to continue. If he stays out, it means that he knows the mild weather is coming.”
Well as we all know, people move around and not only bring themselves and their families but their beliefs and traditions, too. Germans who immigrated to the United States and Canada brought the tradition with them. The first official Groundhog Day was reported on February 2nd, 1840 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. But why did they use a groundhog instead of a badger or a bear? Well, there were more groundhogs (or woodchucks) in Pennsylvania than in Germany so it only made sense to use a similar animal that hibernated and then returned after winter. And this is a great example of how traditions also can change! They need to adapt to the new geographic location.
In Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day became more and more popular and particularly popular in the town of Punxsutawney. Every year the newspaper would report on whether the groundhog when coming up from its hole, saw its shadow. By the year 1887, a group of townspeople met at Gobbler’s Knob to pretend to meet with the groundhog and then declare to the town whether winter was going to last 6 more weeks.
Over time, the celebration grew more and more popular. A picnic was held and a Groundhog Club was formed. Later, the people of Puxatawney started calling their groundhog, Phil, possibly after Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Today, the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is the largest in the world with over 40,000 people attending each year. This year will be 137 years since the first celebration and the people there are already preparing for the big party with music, food, fireworks, and dancing after the groundhog’s big announcement. The event is also live streamed so people all over the world will be able to see what Punxsutawney Phil decides about the weather this year.
One reason the celebration in Puxatawney has become so popular, too, is the result of a movie that was made in 1993 called Groundhog Day. It stars Bill Murray as a self-centered weatherman who goes to the celebration and gets stuck in the same day, February 2nd, day after day after day. For this reason, sometimes you’ll hear people say when days are repetitive that it’s like “Groundhog Day,” the movie.
But the celebration in Pennsylvania isn’t the only Groundhog Celebration across the world and Phil isn’t the only famous groundhog. In New Jersey, they have Milltown Mel. At Space Farms Zoo and Museum, a groundhog named Stonewall Jackson predicts the weather there. There’s also Essex Ed, Great Neck Greta, Quigley, Staten Island Chuck, Dunkirk Dave, and French Creek Freddie. Canada has Balzac Billy and Wiarton Willy.
Well, with all of these groundhogs predicting the weather, you may be asking yourself – just how accurate are they? At least for those who have followed Puxatawney Phil’s predictions, it’s estimated that he’s 40% accurate. Less than half the time, which is pretty funny.
Do you and your family celebrate Groundhog Day? Have you ever seen the movie? I hope you enjoyed learning more about the history of Groundhog Day. Honestly, it was all new to me, and like you I’m learning new history all the time. It’s one reason I love creating this podcast. It’s a great chance to learn more about the fascinating world around us and how so many things came to be. The more you know, the more power it gives you in the world to figure things out, and think critically. Knowledge is its own kind of superpower.