Where Groundhog Day Came From and Why We Love It | Weather
Like many modern celebrations, Groundhog Day can trace its origins in a few different directions.
February 2 is Candlemas. In the Catholic Church, it is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and many sources suggest that candles were introduced into the celebration of the feast in the 5th century.
Even before that, February 2 marked Imbolc, a Gaelic festival recognizing the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Over the centuries, songs and poems have developed around the event, similar to this English verse from the legend:
If Candlemas is beautiful and bright,
Come, Winter, take another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and don’t come back.
Over time, celebrations and folklore evolved and spread across Europe, eventually becoming linked to the animal world. In Germany, if a badger or a hedgehog saw its shadow on Candlemas, winter was bound to continue.
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German settlers brought their folklore to the New World, and a similar animal was found to carry on the tradition, a groundhog.
Several groundhogs, from Sir Walter Wally in North Carolina to Chattanooga Chuck in Tennessee, have gained popularity. But in Virginia, groundhog stories aren’t so neat and orderly.
On February 2, 1914, a prank led a few thousand people to gather in Place du Capitole to watch for a marmot that never appeared. And in 1954, just before making her prognosis, Virginia’s official groundhog killed herself trying to get out of her cage at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The most famous groundhog resides in the small town of Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, where they have celebrated the tradition since 1887. Phil is such an icon in Pennsylvania that the state uses a groundhog in its lottery announcements (keep scratching). Although to keep the two creatures distinct from each other, the announcers named their groundhog Gus.
Whether or not Phil has been right over the years is a matter of perspective and subjective definition of winter.
According to NOAA and Punxsutawney record holders, Phil has forecast six extra weeks of winter 105 times since 1887.
The debates and discussions are all great fun. After all, how would you define an early spring or a continuation of winter? A simple method uses average temperatures for the months of February and March. If average temperatures are above normal for those months, it would be considered an early spring. And vice versa.
Using this method, Phil is only right about 40% of the time. This may not be the best track record. But in the end, it doesn’t matter; we love our folklore and how it connects us to the natural world.
And we love a reason to celebrate. The festivities will continue each February on those cold Pennsylvania mornings, with people coming together to celebrate the annual turn of winter, just like their ancestors did centuries ago.