History of Groundhog Day

Groundhog day is a bit of a big deal in Pennsylvania, we all gather around to see if Punxsutawney Phil will come out or see his shadow. If his shadow scares him back underground, then winter will be longer. If he stays outside, then Spring is right around the corner. The tradition dates back several centuries if we look for its oldest roots.

Evolving Holidays

The oldest holiday like Groundhogs Day is the Celtic Imbolc, a celebration of the beginning of Spring. This was traditionally held on February second, what we now call Groundhog’s Day. Christianity eventually turned Imbolc into Candlemas, a holiday revolving around Jesus in Jeruselam.

Candlemas brought about the first predications for when Spring would arrive. In some parts of Europe, Christians believed that a clear day on Candlemas meant another forty days of snow and cold weather. A cloudy or otherwise inclement day would mean Spring arriving early. This is starting to sound a lot like Groundhog Day, isn’t it?

The Germans would give the holiday the final major evolutionary step: if a small animal emerging from its den is scared back inside, winter will be longer, and if not it will be shorter. Their animal of choice for the holiday was a Badger.

Moving to the States

Pennsylvania has a massive German Heritage, often called PA Dutch (a mispronunciation of Deutsche by the English speakers of the 1700s). On top of having strong influences of German cooking, we also have some very powerful leanings to German holidays. Including our own version of Candlemas.

German settlers weren’t going to find a badger here in PA. There is an American Badger, it’s just a creature typically found a thousand miles west of Pennsylvania, somewhere in the middle of the US. The tradition had to carry on, and there were certainly plenty of small animals that would emerge from burrows and holes in the ground. The groundhog fit the bill rather nicely, they’re abundant throughout the state.

The earliest known record of a Groundhog Day celebration is from Morgantown, PA. A diary entry by James L Morris talks about his German Neighbors’ celebration on February 2nd, 1840. Chances are the celebrations would have started small, inside families before they became more widespread. A newspaper, the Punxsutawney Spirit carried news of Groundhog day in 1886, they stated that as of press-time, the groundhog had not seen its shadow.

The Official Celebration

The exact formation of Groundhog Day as a holiday varies across sources. Most of our sources cite Clymer Freas as the holiday’s creator, the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit. The story goes that Freas knew of a local group of Groundhog Hunters, he convinced them to have a little celebration in 1887. They would of course watch to see what the Groundhog thought of the weather, but they would also feast on groundhogs that had been hunted earlier in the year.

The holiday quickly gained traction through the news. First, Freas would do his coverage and in the years to follow built up more about the celebration, which attracted greater regional attention. Soon the holiday had simply spread to have a national following, perhaps peaking in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day.

In the 1960s, a particular groundhog was picked out to be the holiday’s representative, Punxsutawney Phil. Every few years a new groundhog is picked to replace the last one after they’ve died of old age. There’s a long lineage of Phil’s who attempt to predict our weather going into the Spring.

Notably, Groundhogs are not actually accurate detectors of the weather. Meteorologists have studied the outcome of Groundhog Day and found that it has a mere 40 percent accuracy rate. At that point, it’s literally more accurate to toss a coin (50% accuracy).

This Year’s Phil-Forecast

Phil emerged from his burrow this year around 7:30 AM to a crowd of his fans eagerly waiting to see what he would do. unbothered, he did not see his shadow (or wasn’t scared of it) and remained outside. This predicts an early Spring for the area.

Long range forecasts suggest we will see temperatures in the mid fifties in later March. Winter has been otherwise mild this year in Pennsylvania, with just a few major cold periods and just a few inches of total snowfall. It already feels like Spring.

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