A man dressed in a top hat and black suit stands in front of a large crowd. The crowd is waiting with baited breath as the man reaches down and pulls up a plump, slouching groundhog (sort of like a cross between a beaver and a squirrel). The man holds the groundhog up high, while another man begins to read “Today, February 2nd…”
Today is Groundhog Day in the U.S. and the crowd is waiting to see if there will be another six weeks of winter or if spring will come early. The ceremony for Groundhog Day is held every February 2nd at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to tradition, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his hole. If Phil doesn’t see his shadow (i.e. the weather is sunny), then there will be another six weeks of winter. On the other hand, if Phil does see his shadow, that means there will be an early spring.
Just how exactly did Groundhog Day come to be celebrated? The answer starts with the early German settlers in the Pennsylvania area.
The Celebration of Candlemas with an American Flavor
German settlers began to arrive in the area that is now western Pennsylvania in the early 1700’s. They brought with them the traditional celebration of Candlemas. This celebration had been held since the early days of Christianity, when clergy would bless candles and distribute them to their followers. The candles would be placed in windows and, if the weather on February 2nd was sunny, there would be six more months of winter. If the weather was cloudy and he candle cast a shadow, signs pointed to an early spring. The reason for February 2nd being the day of the celebration is that it lies right between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
At the time that the German settlers had arrived, it was then the custom on Candlemas in Germany to watch for badgers. If the badger’s shadow appeared, then there would be an early spring. Unfortunately, there were no badgers in this part of the United States, so the German settlers adopted the hedgehog as the symbol of Candlemas. When the hedgehog emerged from their dens, the appearance of their shadow would mean an early spring.
From Candlemas to Groundhog Day
It is not known exactly how Groundhog Day came to be celebrated in Punxsutawney, but the first reference to the celebration is found in the diary of Berks’ County Storekeeper James Morris:
“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”
The first official celebration of Groundhog Day was on February 2nd, 1886 when the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, Clymer Freas declared that “Today is Groundhog Day and up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow.” The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.” Punxsutawney then called itself the “Weather Capital of the World.” In Punxsutawney Phil’s debut, he did not see his shadow, meaning there would be an early spring.
Up on Gobbler’s Knob, Phil is placed into a heated burrow underneath simulated tree stump on a stage. At 7:25 a.m. he is pulled forth from the burrow, where he makes his prediction in front of an expectant crowd.
His prediction for 2019? He did not see his shadow, so we’re in for another six weeks of winter!
Groundhog Day Fun Facts
- Groundhog Day, a movie starring Bill Murray that was released in 1993, made the holiday even more popular. In 1999, influenced by the film, 35,000 people attended the ceremony in Punxsutawney
- Groundhogs usually weigh between 12 and 15 pounds. Phil weighs in at 22 pounds.
- Phil survives off of a diet of dog food and ice cream in his climate-controlled home in the Punxsutawney Library
- The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club hosts a three-day celebration leading up to Groundhog Day
- Phil’s fans have been able to get text message alerts of his predictions since 2010. (Text “Groundhog” to 247365, in case you’re interested.)