Why a Groundhog?

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A very happy Punxsutawney Phil in 2008 (Photo from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette)

Every February 2, thousands converge on Punxsutawney, a borough of less than 6,000 residents in mid-western Pennsylvania, to watch as a group of dignitaries in top hats and black suits, known as the Inner Circle of Punxsutawney, mount the steps at Gobbler’s Knob with a large furry animal, affectionately called Punxsutawney Phil, in hand.

Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog, also known as a woodchuck (the “how much wood can it chuck” variety), who the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club has claimed for over a century can predict the shift in the weather from winter conditions to spring-like ones. If Phil sees his shadow, one might expect six more weeks of winter; if not, one should anticipate milder temperatures. (Fun fact: His full name is Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.)

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Punxsutawney Phil (Photo from Lehigh Valley News)

Punxsutawney Phil enjoyed his first moment of fame on February 2, 1887, when city editor Clymer Freas of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper published a story on the forecasting ability of the little guy after drawing inspiration from some groundhog hunters, later deemed the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club [1]. However, the history of Groundhog Day goes farther back than 1887.

The tradition that started Groundhog Day began in the ancient Gaelic festival Imbolc, held on February 1 to mark the end of winter and to celebrate the goddess Brigid [2]. When Ireland converted to Christianity, Imbolc became St. Brigid’s Day.

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St. Brigid of Kildare (Photo from EpicPew)

For the day after this newly-Christianized pagan festival, Catholic missionaries created Candlemas. This holiday fell on the 40th day of the Christmas-Epiphany season, and pointed to the Jewish custom of woman purifying themselves 40 days after giving birth [3]. For this reason, Candlemas is also called the Feast of the Purification of Mary.

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Presentation at the temple (Image from http://phoenix.carpediem.cd/)

The superstition arose that the weather on Candlemas predicted that for the remainder of winter. A Scottish saying quips, “If Candlemas is fair and clear / There’ll be twa [two] winters in the year.” In England they said, “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come, winter, have another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, go winter, and come not again” [4].

In Europe of old, the time that hibernating animals emerged from their dens signaled a possible change in the weather. Germans took this omen and expanded it to the superstition of Candlemas, using a badger (other sources say a hedgehog or a bear) as the forecaster of the winter weather [5].

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A cute badger (Photo from Wildlife Aid)

When German immigrants arrived in America, they brought their badger tradition with them. However, the new country did not boast as many badgers, so the new arrivals turned to a more plentiful American beast: the groundhog. From there, the superstition just grew.

In truth, Punxsutawney Phil has a success rate of less than 40% according to the Stormfax Almanac [4]. Other groundhogs competing for the spotlight on February 2, including Staten Island Chuck of New York and General Beauregard Lee of Georgia, boast higher accuracy, but such has not yet stolen the glory from the original weather-forecasting groundhog in Pennsylvania.

[1] Fun Facts About Punxsutawney Phil
[2] Imbolc and Saint Brigid
[3] Background to Candlemas
[4] The Stormfax Almanac on Groundhog Day
[5] Groundhog Day facts
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