Groundhog Day: How Did the Tradition Start?

by Shelby Scott

Trained and compensated meteorologists sure catch a lot of flack when their weather predictions don’t come true. Or worse, when they do. However, with that, imagine the pressure Pennsylvania’s famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, faces ahead of tomorrow’s annual Groundhog Day celebrations.

As Outsiders likely know, Groundhog Day supposedly determines the outcome of our winter season. Should Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow, Outsiders may expect to endure another six weeks of winter. But if Phil sees cloudy skies, and no shadow, then maybe, just maybe, we can prepare to welcome an early spring.

In hindsight, the practice has become more of a symbolic tradition rather than an accurate estimation of winter’s conclusion. Nevertheless, the February holiday has genuinely unique and interesting origins.

According to Fox News, Groundhog Day as we know it took root in the U.S. during the late 19th century. However, the quirky celebrations likely stemmed from a Christian holiday, traceable all the way back to the 4th century A.D.

Known as “Candlemas,” those who practiced the holiday across Europe would take lit candles to churches to ensure winter blessings. Amid these Candlemas celebrations, surviving documents suggest the phenomenon of weather-predicting animals initiated in Germany. These esteemed creatures ranged from badgers and hedgehogs to bears and foxes.

Early Groundhog Day Records Held in Reading, Pennsylvania

Later, settlers came to the Americas, bringing their traditions with them. Soon enough, Dutch groups settled in Pennsylvania, but they noticed a surprising lack of badgers and native hedgehogs. Apparently, they believed the groundhog–one of PA’s “most widely distributed mammals” according to the Penn State Extension College of Agricultural Sciences–to be a suitable substitute.

One of the earliest records of groundhog weather predictors is held by Berks County’s Historical Society, located in Reading, PA.

Marked with a date of February 4th, 1841, and written by hand, the note reads, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks’ nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

Punxsutawney Celebrates its Famous Holiday

We appreciate Punxsutawney Phil’s efforts, as this winter in PA has been especially frigid. That said, Fox News states meteorologists at the National Weather Service State College insist Outsiders get their information from trained professionals.

However, since its American inception, Groundhog Day remains an important holiday. This is especially true in the small PA town of Punxsutawney, with celebrations lasting throughout the day.

As per the news outlet, thousands of curious individuals flock to the western PA town as they hope to catch a glimpse of the iconic, and immensely adorable, rodent.

Little Phil’s weather prediction ceremony is annually held by the Groundhog Club Inner Circle. The organization helps care for the famous groundhog in addition to managing various festivities.