Every year, Americans in snowy states wait with bated breath to see if Punxsutawney Phil will spot his shadow. And every year we take Phil’s weather forecast – six weeks of winter left or early spring? – as gospel, meteorology be damned.
It’s about as weird (and cute) as holidays can get. So how did Groundhog Day go from a crazy local tradition to an annual celebration that even those of us not worried about winter can enjoy?
We explore the origins of Groundhog Day from a tiny event to an American holiday we can all be proud of. Spoilers: Badgers, immortality and at least one groundhog are on the menu.
Every February 2nd, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club hike to Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney Phil’s official home just outside of town. The group wears top hats and tuxedos and waits for Phil to leave his den, and if he sees his shadow, the town will get six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, Punxsutawney gets an early spring.
But the early seeds of Groundhog Day that we know today were planted “born and raised in Groundhog Country in central Pennsylvania” thousands of years ago, according to Dan Yoder, a folklorist who wrote the definitive history of the folk holiday that commemorates became a national tradition.
The holiday evolved over centuries as it was observed by different groups, from the Celts to the Germans to the Pennsylvania Dutch and finally those in other parts of the United States. Its development began in the pre-Christian era of Western Europe when the Celtic world was the dominant cultural force in the region. In the Celtic year, instead of solstices, there were four dates – similar to what we use today to mark out the seasons – that were the “turning points” of the year. One of them, according to Yoder, was February 1st.
These turning point dates were so important to Europeans at the time that they Christianized them when Western Europe widely embraced Christianity. While May 1st became May 1st and November 1st became All Saints’ Day, the February 1st holiday was postponed to the following day – and eventually became Groundhog Day.
At first, however, the February holiday was known as “Candlemas,” a day on which Christians brought candles into church for blessing—a sign of a source of light and warmth for the winter. But like the other three “turning points,” it was still a “weather-significant” date that signified a change in seasons, Yoder wrote.
And when agriculture was the region’s largest, if not its only, industry, forecasting the weather became something of a ritual, seen as essential to the health of the crops and the townspeople. There was also a certain mysticism associated with the holiday, as exemplified by a 1678 poem by naturalist John Ray:
“When Candlemas is fair and bright
Winter will have a different flight
If there is showers and rain on Candlemas Day
Winter is over and will not come back.”
The animal meteorology element wasn’t incorporated until German speakers came to parts of Europe formerly populated by the Celts, and brought their own beliefs to the holiday – except they hedged their bets on a badger instead of a marmot. An old European encyclopedia that Yoder quoted refers to the German badger as the “weather prophet at Candlemas,” though it’s not clear why. (Sources such as the State of Pennsylvania and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club say the Germans also viewed hedgehogs as heralds of the new season.) When the holiday came overseas with the Pennsylvania Dutch, they traded the badger for an American marmot that was just as shy and underground was probably more common in the area where they settled.
Many sources claim that the original Groundhog Day occurred in 1887 when Punxsutawney residents headed to Gobbler’s Knob, known as Phil’s “official” home, but the first evidence Yoder found that townspeople trusted a groundhog with the weather was a diary The entry was dated 1840. And since Dutch immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania primarily in the mid to late 18th century, it’s likely the holiday existed decades earlier than we recorded, according to the Library of Congress.
Part of the reason so many of us know about Groundhog Day is because of the 1993 film of the same name. The phrase “groundhog day” even became shorthand for that déjà vu feeling of reliving the same day over and over again. But Punxsutawney Phil became something of a cult star even before the film debuted — according to the York Daily Record, he appeared on the show Today in 1960 and visited the White House in 1986. He even bewitched Oprah Winfrey by appearing on her 1995 show.
However, before he was a celebrity, he was Having lunch. In a horrifying twist, the earliest Groundhog Days of the 19th century involved devouring poor Phil after he made his prediction. The year 1887 was the year of the “Groundhog Picnic,” Yoder said. Pennsylvania historian Christopher Davis wrote that locals prepared groundhog as a “special local dish” served at the Punxsutawney Elk Lodge, whose members later formed the town’s Groundhog Club. Guests were “delighted at how tender” the poor groundhog’s meat was, Davis said.
Groundhog meat eventually left the menu of Punxsutawney establishments as the townspeople recognized its value. In the 1960s, Phil got his name, a nod to “King Phillip,” according to the Groundhog Club. (The specific King Phillip after whom he was named is unclear; Mental Floss pointed out that there had not been a King Phillip of Germany for centuries, from which many settlers in Pennsylvania hailed). Before that, he was simply “Br’er Groundhog”.
Punxsutawney Phil’s popularity has inspired several imitators: there’s Staten Island Chuck of New York, Pierre C. Shadeaux of Louisiana, and Thistle the Whistle-Pig of Ohio, to name a few other groundhog weather forecasters. But there’s only one Phil, and he’s the original.
Despite their early practice of spoiling Phil’s family, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club claims there has only been one Phil since 1886. Every year at the summer marmot picnic, he gets an “elixir of life” that “magically gives him seven more years of life,” said the association. (Groundhogs can live up to six years in the wild and up to 14 in captivity, per PBS Nature, so do with them what you will.)
Phil doesn’t have to spend the offseason alone either. According to the Groundhog Club, he is married to Phyliss, who does not receive the same Elixir of Life and therefore will not live forever like her groundhog husband. There’s no official word on how many wives Phil has survived over the years.
As for his accuracy in forecasting the weather – Phil’s success or failure. He sees his shadow often — 107 times, according to the York Daily Record, which has analyzed every single one of Phil’s official weather forecasts since the 19th century. Last year Phil saw his shadow coinciding with a major winter storm. Fingers crossed for better luck for all of us this year.