Why we celebrate Groundhog Day

Ruth Griffiths

Each year on Feb. 2, a large rodent emerges from its den in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. If this groundhog, named Phil, sees its shadow, it will retreat to its den and winter will go on for six more weeks; if it doesn’t see its shadow, spring will be early.

This lighthearted ritual was immortalized in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. Its roots, however go back two centuries in North America and beyond that in Europe.

According to the U.S. Weather Service, Groundhog Day has its origins in ancient European weather lore, wherein a badger or sacred bear predicts the weather, as opposed to a groundhog.

Groundhog Day is also similar to Candlemas. For early Christians in Europe, Candlemas on Feb. 2 was a day to bless and distribute candles. It was at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  Early Christians decided that clear skies on Candlemas Day meant a longer winter was ahead, while a cloudy day foreshadowed the end of winter.  According to the English version:

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

In the 1700s Germans who settled in Pennsylvania celebratedf Candlemas and introduced the tradition of an animal seeing its shadow into the prediction of the weather on that day.  In Germany, a badger had been used, but a suitable replacement in America was the groundhog.

In 1886, Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit Newspaper proclaimed Punxsutawney Phil, the local groundhog, to be the one and only official weather forecasting groundhog.  Phil’s fame spread, and newspapers from around the globe began to report Groundhog Day predictions.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Wiarton Willie, of Wiarton, Ont., has been predicting the weather since 1956. Like Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willie is not a wild groundhog. He lives in a house in Bluewater Park, safe from predators, and the town of Wiarton cares for him year-round.