The Origins of Groundhog Day

Each year, on February 2nd, everyone awaits the appearance of the groundhog. As the story has it, if he emerges from his hole and if it is sunny, he will be startled by his own shadow and quickly retreat back into his hole. This signals six more weeks of Winter. However, if it is a cloudy day and he sees no shadow, Spring-like weather will be just around the corner.

Colorful map of Scotland

"Groundhog Day" has its origin in an ancient Celtic festival known as "Imbolc" (or "Oimelc"), names that refer to the lactation of ewes. The central figure of this festival was the Celtic goddess Brigid, who represented the light-bringer of the the associated celebration. In Scotland, February is a cold and harsh month, and was referred to as the "Wolf-month", or the "Dead-month". However, it is also the month where new signs of life appear: lambs are born and new grass begins to grow. Ravens often start new nests and, according to legend, larks sing with a clearer voice. In Ireland, the land is prepared for the upcoming crops, calves are born, and fisherman prepare their boats for the new fishing season.

Later, the Christian Church replaced this festival with "Candlemas Day", which is held each February 2nd and features candlelight celebrations. This day marked the mid point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Clergymen would bless candles and distribute them to the people to be lit and placed in each window of the home. If the sun came out on Candlemas Day, it meant six more weeks of wintry weather.

German settlers brought this tradition to America in the 1700s, along with the saying:

"For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May."

The old English version of this saying was somewhat different, but drove home the same point:

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


Both of these sayings were eventually altered somewhat in America:

"If the sun shines on Groundhog Day;
Half the fuel and half the hay".

Although German settlers in America would generally watch a badger for the Spring forecast, the state of Pennsylvania replaced the badger with a groundhog. Arguably, the most famous groundhog is "Phil" of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney, an area halfway between the Susquehanna and Allegheny Rivers, was first settled by the Delaware Indian Tribe in the 1720’s. The town name allegedly comes from the Delaware world "ponksad-uteney", which means "town of sandflies". The Delawares also considered the groundhog, or woodchuck, as honorable ancestors and that all forebearers began life as animals.

Cartoon Image of a groundhog jumping after seeing its shadow

Punxsutawney officially began its celebration of Groundhog Day in 1886. The February 2nd edition of the Punxsutawney Spirit that year proclaimed "Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow". Thus, Phil was immortalized and the annual trips to Gobbler’s Knob began the following year.


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