Why is Groundhog Day a Thing?

Every year, on the second day of February, Americans wait with anticipation for the first groundhog to poke his head out of his burrow. Why? Because we believe that if the groundhog comes out, it means that winter weather is almost over and spring will arrive soon, but if he sees his shadow, he will pop his head right back into the burrow, and that means we will have six more weeks of cold and snow.

Yeah, Americans are weird.

I mean, just looking at this objectively, it seems rather strange. Why would we assume a giant rodent would have the ability to predict the weather? Why do we ascribe this power to them on a specific day each year? Why is Groundhog Day a thing?

Well, for starters, the choice of February 2nd is NOT a coincidence. It falls just about midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, meaning it’s right in the middle of winter. For centuries, many cultures have celebrated some form of festival right around this time every year. One of these was the Celtic holiday of Imbolc that celebrated the coming arrival of spring. Another was the Roman festival of Lupercalia, that celebrated the ancient Greco-Roman myths that were used to explain the seasons. As with many pre-Christian pagan holidays in Europe, these festivals were eventually supplanted and absorbed by a Christian holiday – in this case, Candlemas.

Candlemas celebrates the day that the Virgin Mary brought her new baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, as was the tradition in Biblical times. Under the Mosaic Law, this was to be done when a baby was 40 days old. Well, February 2nd is 40 days after Christmas, the day Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth, so the decision was made by the 6th-century Roman Emperor Justinian to hold Candlemas on that day. The name “Candlemas” refers to the rituals performed by churches that honor the day, involving the blessing of candles and a solemn, candle-lit procession.

In medieval Germany, there was an old superstition that badgers, bears, and other animals would briefly come out of hibernation on Candlemas. It was these medieval Germans who started the superstition about the animals predicting six more weeks of winter if they saw their shadows. In the 18th century, many German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania, where they became the ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Quick side-note: The Pennsylvania Dutch are not actually Dutch. The name comes from a misunderstanding by their English-speaking neighbors. The German word for German is “Deutsch”, so when English-speaking Pennsylvanians met these people who called themselves “Deutsch”, they mistakenly assumed they were saying they were “Dutch”. Today, there are some who prefer the term “Pennsylvania German” instead, as this is the more accurate term.

In any case, it was this Pennsylvania German community who brought over the Candlemas superstition of animals with shadow-based weather-prediction powers. Of course, being in the United States, they assigned this superstition to the animals they saw here. American animals like the groundhog.

What, little old me?

This is where Clymer Freas comes in. Freas was a newspaper editor who lived in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and had the idea to start the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club in 1887. The club decided to make an annual trek to the hill known as Gobbler’s Knob to observe a local groundhog named “Punxsutawney Phil” every February 2nd to see what his weather forecast would be. It was all in good fun, and that’s probably why people kept up the local tradition. To this very day, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club still consults with Punxsutawney Phil at Gobbler’s Knob every year, asking him in “groundhogese” about whether he saw his shadow or not.

Word of Phil’s predictive powers spread, and over the years, other groundhogs in other parts of the country have become amateur meteorologists as well. There’s New York’s Staten Island Chuck and Atlanta’s General Beauregard Lee. Still, Phil remains the most famous of America’s weather-predicting groundhogs, in spite of the fact his predictions, well, they aren’t exactly the most accurate statistically.

So, why is he the famous one? Well, it may partially be because he was the first, but it may also partially be because of the beloved 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, that at least one cable channel plays on repeat throughout the day on February 2nd (see, it’s funny because the film is about a guy caught in a time loop… oh, forget it).

Besides, I don’t think many Americans pay attention to Groundhog Day because they actually think a giant rodent named “Phil” is predicting the weather. It’s a fun, quirky, American tradition that is part of our cultural heritage. The United States of America is full of eccentric and unique quirks like these, and these oddities are my favorite aspect of this great nation I call mine. They are part of why I love America. A Happy Groundhog Day to you all, Cat Flaggers!

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