The Legend and Lore Behind Groundhog Day

  • January 31, 2017
  • Jenna Maxwell

When it comes to weather, there is winter, and then there is WINTER. This year, across the nation, we have seen a wide variety of unusually harsh and rather extreme winter weather. Winter has been fraught with all manner of snow, sleet, rain, wind and everything in between. Many of you may already be pining for spring, and who can blame you? When, oh when will spring arrive? At times like this, it's more important than ever to have a weather forecasting resource that you can trust. Whether you choose to check a weather app on your phone or take a simpler approach and just stick your head outside to see what's going on --knowing what's happening with your local weather is important. The whole idea of weather forecasting is hardly anything new--in fact, as far back as the earliest civilizations, predicting the weather has been an important part of all cultures.

One of the most legendary predictors of weather has centered on of all things, a groundhog. The methodology used with this fat marmot is rather simple and certainly doesn't require thermometers, barometers, weather maps or even satellites. Here is everything you've been dying to know about one of the most bizarre weather forecasting techniques of all time, all featured in an upcoming holiday known as Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day is celebrated this Thursday, February 2nd. Although the first official Groundhog Day was marked in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in 1887, the core premise of the celebration has roots that go deep into history. Thousands of years ago, ancient Europeans had some rather quirky methods of predicting the weather. It was important to try at least to make an educated guess about the length of winter back in those days. Local folks in the villages were anxious to figure out when the best time was to plant their crops. Mid-winter was estimated to occur on February 2, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to begin assessing how much longer winter would last. As was common back in those days, the locals were fairly superstitious about a lot of things. At that time long ago, midwinter also coincided with a celebration known as Candlemas. The ancients viewed Candlemas as a religious holiday, but according to ancient lore, it was also a time that the future of winter could be predicted.

"If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas be cloud and rain,
Winter will be gone and not come again."

During the celebration of Candlemas, a couple of animals were thought to have mystical powers when it came to weather prediction. These animals (primarily badgers and sometimes bears) were used and observed. The thinking was if one could see the badger's shadow on this mid-winter day, winter was going to continue for several weeks. If the shadow was absent, spring was thought to be imminent.

When German immigrants eventually migrated to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania, they brought with them many of their customs from the old country. One of these old traditions was, of course, the practice of looking for badger shadows as a method of predicting the weather. Once in Pennsylvania, however, badgers were pretty hard to find. One animal that seemed to be roaming around in abundant numbers was the Groundhog or as it sometimes otherwise known, the Woodchuck.

Not only was the groundhog waddling around all over the place in Pennsylvania in those days, but this close relative of the ground squirrel was also considered to be a culinary delicacy in those parts. During the late 1800's, particularly at the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge, groundhogs were a menu favorite. Aficionados of the groundhog were passionate enough about this portly critter to form a club in honor of their beloved rodent. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was born. In 1887, the Groundhog Club held their first official ceremony putting their beloved mascot, "Punxsutawney Phil" to use as a weather forecaster. Filling in for the badgers and bears used in olden days, on this particular February the 2nd, Punxsutawney Phil climbed out of his cozy burrow just long enough to show himself while onlookers watched anxiously for his shadow.

Here were are, 130 years later, and Groundhog day in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania is still holding its own as a long-standing tradition. Classic formal garb, including top hats and tails, are all part of the pomp and circumstance that goes along with Punxsutawney Phil's distinguished appearance. Other chubby imposter groundhogs such as Buckeye Chuck, South Lake Jake and Jimmy the Groundhog, have popped up in various places around the country. Groundhog Day is now a celebration happening in many locations outside of Gobbler's Knob, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Perhaps a Groundhog Day event may even be happening near you.

So, if you're wondering what's left of winter--look no further. On Thursday, February the 2nd, the nation's attention will turn to a groundhog known as Punxsutawney Phil as his shadow does or doesn't show up along with him. If Phil sees his shadow, tradition states we're in for six more weeks of winter. If Phil's shadow is gloriously absent, spring is just around the corner. Devotees of Phil and members of the Groundhog Club claim that Phil's weather predictions are 100% accurate. StormFax, however, puts Phil's accuracy rate at a rather abysmal 39%. Whether you believe in the weather wizardry of an old groundhog or not, there's something completely awesome about the idea of a weather-predicting animal named Phil. Groundhog Day is celebrated this Thursday, February 2nd.