By Albrecht Powell
Every year on February 2, exactly halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, Americans eagerly await the emergence of Punxsutawney Phil, the Western Pennsylvania groundhog who predicts the conclusion of winter by seeing his own shadow. Whether or not you believe in the folklore, Groundhog Day is a cherished tradition with a long history and international renown, primarily due to the 1993 hit movie, “Groundhog Day.”
Although the holiday, as it is today, is a uniquely American tradition, the history stretches hundreds of years back before the first Europeans ever crossed the Atlantic.
The roots of Groundhog Day go all the way back to a different celebration, the Christian feast day of Candlemas. On February 2, Christians traditionally bring candles to their local church to be blessed, which in turn bring light and warmth to the home for the remainder of winter.
At some point, a Candlemas folk song appeared in England that added the element of weather forecast to the holiday:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.
Due to the song, the connection between Candlemas and the beginning of spring spread across all of Europe, but still without any connection to an animal.
Introduction of the Groundhog
Germany created its own interpretation of Candlemas and incorporated small hibernating animals into the lore, such as hedgehogs. If a hedgehog emerged on February 2 and saw its own shadow, there would be six more weeks of cold weather. If it didn’t see its own shadow, then spring would come early.
As early German immigrants arrived in America and settled in what is now Pennsylvania, Candlemas is just one of the many customs they brought with them. Because hedgehogs are native to Europe and don’t exist in the wild in North America, the German settlers searched for another burrowing animal in the area to consult and found the groundhog.
First Groundhog Day
The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated on February 2, 1886, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas: “Today is Groundhog Day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” Exactly one year later, townspeople made the first trip to Gobbler’s Knob, the hill where the famous groundhog emerges from, and thus began the modern tradition of Groundhog Day. The local paper proclaimed that Punxsutawney Phil, as he was affectionately named, was the one and only official weather prognosticating groundhog.
Phil’s fame began to spread and newspapers from around the world began to report his predictions. Growing legions of fans started making the trek to Punxsutawney every February 2, and with the release of the movie “Groundhog Day,” the crowds began to number in the tens of thousands. Phil’s yearly Groundhog Day predictions are even entered into the Congressional Record.
Punxsutawney Groundhog Day Celebration
Many major news networks show the festivities for viewers to watch live online or on TV from the comfort of your own home, which takes place at 7:25 a.m. Eastern time.
If you want to catch a glimpse of Phil’s prediction in person, arrive in Punxsutawney a few hours early or, ideally, at least the day before. Thousands of tourists descend on the small town each February, so lodging and parking are severely limited. Several shuttles provide transportation throughout the morning from the town center to Gobbler’s Knob.
If you decide to spend a few days in Punxsutawney, you’ll see that the celebrations are stretched out across the week. A city-wide festival in the days leading up to February 2 includes ice carving sculpture competitions, food tours, wine tasting, kids’ scavenger hunts, live music concerts, and more.
The groundhog’s full name is actually “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather-Prophet Extraordinary.” It was so proclaimed by the “Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” in 1887, the same year they declared Punxsutawney to be the weather capital of the world.
For most of the year, Phil lives in a climate-controlled home at the Punxsutawney Library. He is taken to Gobbler’s Knob and placed in a heated burrow underneath a simulated tree stump on stage before being pulled out at 7:25 a.m. on Groundhog Day, February 2, to make his prediction.
Phil is reputed by townspeople to be more than 100 years old, surviving far beyond a marmot’s normal life span.