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This Day in History: The surprising origins of Groundhog Day

On this day in 1887, the first Groundhog Day is celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The celebration seems so solidly American, doesn’t it? Yet it actually stems from old traditions carried across the Atlantic centuries ago.

American adaptations were made, of course. In Europe, badgers or hedgehogs could be used to predict the weather. But in Pennsylvania, groundhogs were more plentiful. They’d have to do.

How did it come to be that more sunlight equals more winter, while dreary weather means spring is on its way? It seems backwards, doesn’t it?

One explanation looks to an old Gaelic festival celebrated at the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. According to legend, if the goddess Cailleach intended for winter to continue, then she would make the day sunshiny and bright. It was an opportunity to gather more firewood. If winter was nearly over, then no such sunshiny day would be needed.

Those traditions began to blend with another significant anniversary during the same week. February 2 was celebrated by Christians as Candlemas. It’s the 40th day in the Christmas-Epiphany season, and the Bible speaks of Mary’s visit to the Temple on that day. She and Joseph presented Jesus, as required by Jewish custom; Mary also went through a ritual post-childbirth purification.

Candlemas was important to Christians, who brought their candles to church to be blessed before the last weeks of winter. Over time, people began to predict the weather based on the sunshine (or lack thereof) on Candlemas.

One old English song reflects this sentiment:

“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight, But if it be dark with clouds and rain, Winter is gone, and will not come again.”

The tradition expanded to Germany, and another twist was added. Germans began to look to animals (often hedgehogs) to help them predict the weather. If the hedgehog saw his shadow on a sunshiny day, then 6 more weeks of winter was coming. Otherwise, winter was wrapping up.

When some Germans crossed the Atlantic and settled in Pennsylvania, the tradition was tweaked yet again. The new American settlers discovered that it was much easier to find a groundhog than a hedgehog in their new home.

The tradition of watching groundhogs was born!

Perhaps it is unsurprising that some entrepreneurs got a hold of this idea eventually? This is America, after all.

In 1886, a newspaper, the Punxsutawney Spirit, first printed an item about a Groundhog Day observance. Just one year later, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club held its first formal ceremony with Punxsutawney Phil. The celebrations grew, and each year’s events were immortalized in print by newspaperman Clymer H. Freas. “The little beast saw his silhouette reflected on the brown earth, chuckled malignantly, and scrambled back into his burrow,” wrote Freas one year. “This, of course, insures six weeks of very severe weather.”

Freas’s descriptions became more and more elaborate. In time, others began to tune in to Punxsutawney for their weather news. Today, of course, the city’s celebration has become a multi-day event, with visitors pouring in from all over the country.

Most of the time, Punxsutawney Phil makes an erroneous prediction about the weather, but you’d never know it from all the excitement surrounding Gobbler’s Knob this morning.

Hmm. Entrepreneurs at work, seizing opportunity and turning something as simple as an animal’s shadow into a fun festival. What an AMERICAN thing to do.

Primary Sources:

Abigail Abrams, Here's How Groundhog Day Got Started (Time Mag., Jan. 31, 2017)

Don Yoder, Groundhog Day (2003)

Kat Eschner, Meet the Inner Circle That Runs Groundhog Day (Smithsonian Mag., Feb. 2, 2017)

Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website

Groundhog Day (National Centers for Environmental Information website)



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