Skip to main content

The Origin of Groundhog Day

Image result for groundhog
Does this look like a meteorologist to you?

If you grew up in America, you’ve probably heard it all your life: “If the groundhog sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter.  Otherwise, it’s an early spring.”  Strictly going by the calendar, we’re getting six more weeks of winter after February 2, since that’s more or less the exact middle of winter (so it’s six and a half more weeks of winter, technically).  So will we or won’t we get warm weather in early March, and see crocuses poking their heads up before expected?  Almost certainly, due to global warming.  But this groundhog business predates global warming, so what’s the idea in the first place?

First we must recognize that the groundhog is horning in on another holiday: Candlemas.  Candlemas is a Christian holiday that doesn’t get the attention it used to.  It represents the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  Every child in a Jewish family (and most importantly the firstborn son) is to be presented at the temple within forty days after birth.  Parents can do this sooner, but forty is the maximum number.  Since Christmas is traditionally celebrated on December 25, it then figures that Candlemas would fall on February 2—forty days after Christmas.  In some countries, this is the day when you traditionally take down your Christmas decorations.  (We have no such tradition in my country, but I’ll confess at my house we'll be taking the Christmas tree down on February 2 this year, but not due to the Candlemas tradition.  This is a different tradition called laziness.)

Candlemas has long been considered a harbinger of the weather, even before Europeans first knew groundhogs, which they would discover after reaching America.  An old English poem reads like this:

    If Candlemas be fair and bright,
    Winter has another flight.
    If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
    Winter will not come again.

Sound familiar?  Basically, if it’s sunny on Candlemas, winter will continue as usual, but if it’s cloudy on Candlemas, it’s an early spring.  And if it’s cloudy, what doesn’t happen?  The groundhog (and everyone else) doesn’t see its shadow!

So how did groundhogs, North American animals, get mixed up in this very old European tradition?  It wasn’t always a groundhog, of course.  Older traditions use a badger or a bear.  Both animals are indigenous to North America, but for whatever reason, when the tradition came to America, it transformed to a celebration of the groundhog.  A shopkeeper in Morgantown, Pennsylvania is cited in the first written reference to weather prognosticating groundhogs in America.  The shopkeeper noted in 1841 that German immigrants to Pennsylvania believed that if the groundhog came out of his burrow and didn’t see his shadow, it would be an early spring.

As Germans and their descendants spread out across North America, so too did the groundhog legend.  Groundhogs are found all over the eastern half of the United States and in much of Canada, and even in parts of Alaska.  Meteorological groundhogs, not surprisingly, appear all over these regions, as well.  No one puts any faith in the the groundhogs’ ability to predict the weather any more than they put faith in the zodiac’s ability to predict one’s love life, but the fun is pretty widespread.  Local groundhogs always make the local news, as do their predictions.  The largest Groundhog Day event is the one in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which has been going on annually since 1886.  The groundhog’s name is Punxsutawney Phil, and he is greeted with much fanfare.  A group of men calling themselves the Groundhog Club dress in top hats and spats, ready to party like it’s 1899, and greet Phil as he comes out of his “hole”.  His “hole” is actually a hutch, and they open its door and somehow determine whether or not Phil has seen his shadow.  Tradition has it that Phil would see his shadow and get frightened by it, inspiring his retreat, but with all the lights from the camera crews, it’s hard to see how no shadow gets cast.  The Groundhog Club interprets what Phil tells them, claiming that they can speak “Groundhogese”, and they in turn translate it into English, in the form of verse.

Related image
The Groundhog Club and Punxsutawney Phil at Gobbler’s Knob, Groundhog Day, 2016.

The celebration in Punxsutawney is by far the largest groundhog celebration in North America, drawing over 40,000 attendees annually (and more if it’s on a weekend).  That’s a lot of people for a remote mountain in Pennsylvania, in the middle of winter, at dawn.  The festival there used to get quite out of hand, but in the 1990s, drinking was banned on Gobbler’s Knob, the mountain (well, it’s more like a hill, really,) where Phil puts in his appearance. Celebrations keep getting larger, but the enforced sobriety make them much more manageable for local law enforcement.

Punxsutawney Phil’s fame got a major boost with the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman from Pittsburgh who gets sent to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities.  In the film, one specific day, Groundhog Day, keeps repeating for Murray’s character.  This has nothing to do with any Groundhog Day or Candlemas traditions, but it has resulted in “Groundhog Day” taking on a secondary meaning.  The film is evoked sometimes when it feels like undesirable events are starting to repeat for no good reason.  “Oh, Congress is deadlocked on the budget, yet again.  It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day.”

For the record, Punxsutawney Phil more often than not predicts six more weeks of winter.  Of all his recorded predictions, they’ve been correct 39% of the time.  So when you hear Phil’s results, bear that in mind.  But cut him some slack: he’s been doing this for at least 122 years.  That rodent’s probably exhausted.


Popular posts from this blog

How the Lemon was Invented

Lemons How do you make a lemon?  Silly question, isn’t it?  You just take the seeds out of one and plant them, and wait for the tree to come up, right?  That’s true, but it hasn’t always been that easy.  Lemons today are a widely cultivated citrus fruit, with a flavor used in cuisines of countries where no lemon tree would ever grow.  You might think that it was just a matter of ancient peoples finding the trees, enjoying their fruit and growing more of them, but that’s not true.  The lemon is a human invention that’s maybe only a few thousand years old. The first lemons came from East Asia, possibly southern China or Burma.  (These days, some prefer to refer to Burma as Myanmar .  I’ll try to stay out of that controversy here and stick to fruit.)  The exact date of the lemon’s first cultivation is not known, but scientists figure it’s been around for more than 4,000 years.  The lemon is a cross breed of several fruits.  One fruit is the bitter orange, best known in the west for

Origins of the Word Hoser, eh?

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as cultural icons Bob and Doug McKenzie These days we often hear Canadians referred to as “Hosers”.  It’s a strange word, and it sounds a little insulting, but it’s sometimes used more with affection than malice.  Any such word is difficult to use correctly, especially if you don’t belong to the group the word describes.   I can’t say I feel comfortable throwing the word around, myself, but I can offer a little information about it that might shed some light on what it means. First off: is it an insult?  Yes… and no.   The word hoser can be used as an insult or as a term of endearment; the variation hosehead , is certainly an insult.  It’s a mild insult, meaning something like jerk or idiot or loser .  Its origin is unclear, and there are several debatable etymologies of the word.  One claims that it comes from the days before the zamboni was invented, when the losing team of an outdoor ice hockey game would have to hose down the rink in or

The Whoopie Cap

What can you do with your father’s old hats?  If you were born after, say, 1955, the answer is probably “Not much.”  Men were still wearing fedoras in the 1970s and 1980s, but by 1990, fashion had turned to the point where unless you were Indiana Jones, the hat didn’t look right.  Some blame Jack Kennedy for starting it all, strutting around perfectly coiffed and bare-headed in the early 1960s.  In 1953, Harry Truman, a haberdasher by trade, stepped out of office, and just eight years later we had a president who didn’t care for hats?  The times, they were a-changin’. If you set the WABAC machine to the 1920s or 1930s (when Indiana Jones was supposed to have lived), you would see the fedora was still very much in style.  Men just didn’t leave the house without a hat of some kind, and for what remained of the middle class, the fedora was the topper of choice.  But like any other piece of clothing, hats wear out, too.  When that happened, you’d just throw it away.  Though if there were