The bizarre history of Groundhog Day (2024)

Every year, Americans in snowy states wait with bated breath to see whether Punxsutawney Phil will spot his shadow. And every year, we take Phil’s weather forecast – six more weeks of winter, or an early spring? – as gospel, meteorology be damned.

It’s about as strange (and cute) as holidays get. So how did Groundhog Day go from a kooky local tradition to an annual celebration even those of us who don’t worry about winter can find the fun in?

We explore Groundhog Day’s origins from a tiny event to an American holiday we can all be proud of. Spoiler: there are badgers, immortality and at least one groundhog on the menu.

Groundhog Day was originally celebrated with … a badger?

Every February 2, the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club trek to Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney Phil’s official home just outside of town. Donning top hats and tuxedos, the group waits for Phil to leave his burrow, and if he sees his shadow, the town gets six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, Punxsutawney gets an early spring.

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But the early seeds of the Groundhog Day we know today were planted thousands of years ago, according to Dan Yoder, a folklorist “born and raised in the Groundhog Country of Central Pennsylvania” who penned the definitive history of the folk holiday turned national tradition.

The holiday evolved over centuries as it was observed by different groups, from the Celts to Germans to the Pennsylvania Dutch and eventually, by those in other parts of the US. Its evolution began in the pre-Christian era of Western Europe, when the Celtic world was the predominant cultural force in the region. In the Celtic year, instead of solstices, there were four dates – similar to the dates we use today to demarcate the seasons – that were the “turning points” of the year. One of them, per Yoder, was February 1.

These turning point dates were so essential to Europeans at the time that they Christianized them when Western Europe widely adopted Christianity. While May 1 became May Day, and November 1 became All Saints’ Day, the February 1 holiday was pushed to the following day – and would eventually become Groundhog Day.

First, though, the February holiday was known as “Candlemas,” a day on which Christians brought candles to church to be blessed – a sign of a source of light and warmth for winter. But like the other three “turning points,” it was still a “weather-important” date that signified a change in the seasons, Yoder wrote.

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And when agriculture was the biggest, if not only, industry of the region, predicting the weather became something of a ritual viewed as essential to the health of crops and townsfolk. There was some mysticism attached to the holiday, too, as seen in a poem from 1678 penned by the naturalist John Ray:

“If Candlemas day be fair and bright

Winter will have another flight

If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain

Winter is gone and will not come again.”

The animal meteorology element wasn’t folded in until German speakers came to parts of Europe formerly populated by the Celtic people and brought their own beliefs to the holiday – except, instead of a groundhog, they hedged their bets on a badger. An old European encyclopedia Yoder cited points to the German badger as the “Candlemas weather prophet,” though it’s not clear why. (Sources including the state of Pennsylvania and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club say the Germans also considered hedgehogs as harbingers of the new season.) When the holiday came overseas with the Pennsylvania Dutch, they traded the badger for an American groundhog, equally shy and subterranean and likely more prevalent in the area in which they settled.

Many sources claim that the original Groundhog Day took place in 1887, when residents of Punxsutawney set out to Gobbler’s Knob, known as Phil’s “official” home, but the first piece of evidence Yoder found of townspeople trusting a groundhog for the weather, a diary entry, was dated 1840. And since Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants mostly arrived in the mid-to-late 18th century, it’s likely that the holiday existed for decades earlier than we have recorded, per the Library of Congress.

From a dinner plate to a pedestal: Phil’s journey to stardom

Part of the reason so many of us know about Groundhog Day is due to 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. But Punxsutawney Phil became something of a cult celebrity even before the film debuted – he appeared on the “Today” show in 1960, according to the York Daily Record, and visited the White House in 1986. He even charmed Oprah Winfrey, appearing on her show in 1995.

Before he was a celebrity, though, he was lunch. In a terrible 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 cooked up groundhog as a “special local dish,” served at the Punxsutawney Elk Lodge, whose members would go on to create the town’s Groundhog Club. Diners were “pleased at how tender” the poor groundhog’s meat was, Davis said.

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Groundhog meat eventually left the menu of Punxsutawney establishments as the townsfolk realized his worth. In the 1960s, Phil got his name, a nod to “King Phillip,” per the Groundhog Club. (The specific King Phillip he was named for is unclear; Mental Floss pointed out that there has not been a King Phillip of Germany, where many Pennsylvania settlers came from, in centuries). Before that, he was simply “Br’er Groundhog.”

Punxsutawney Phil’s popularity has inspired several imitators: There’s Staten Island Chuck in New York, Pierre C. Shadeaux of Louisiana and Thistle the Whistle-pig of Ohio, to name a few fellow groundhog weather prognosticators. But there’s only one Phil, and he’s the original.

Despite their early practice of noshing on Phil’s family, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club avers that there has only been one Phil since 1886. He’s given an “elixir of life” every year at the summertime Groundhog Picnic, which “magically gives him seven more years of life,” the club said. (Groundhogs can live up to six years in the wild and up to 14 in captivity, per PBS’ Nature, so do with that what you will.)

Phil also doesn’t have to spend the offseason alone. He’s married to Phyliss, per the Groundhog Club, who does not receive the same elixir of life and so will not live forever like her groundhog husband. There is no official word on how many wives Phil has outlived through over the years.

As for his accuracy in weather-predicting – Phil’s hit or miss. He often sees his shadow – 108 times, before this year, per the York Daily Record, which has analyzed every single one of Phil’s official weather predictions since the 19th century. Two years ago, Phil saw his shadow, which coincided with a huge winter storm.

This year, though, Phil emerged without spotting his shadow, projecting an early spring – a welcome surprise for those of us already shivering through February.

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Groundhog Day is an annual celebration in the United States where Americans eagerly await the prediction of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, to determine whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. The origins of Groundhog Day can be traced back thousands of years and have evolved over time through various cultural influences.

According to Dan Yoder, a folklorist from Central Pennsylvania, the holiday's roots can be found in the pre-Christian era of Western Europe when the Celtic culture was dominant. In the Celtic year, there were four dates that marked the "turning points" of the year, and one of them was February 1. These turning point dates were significant to Europeans, and when Western Europe adopted Christianity, they Christianized these dates. The February 1 holiday eventually became known as Candlemas, a day when Christians brought candles to church to be blessed as a symbol of light and warmth during winter.

Predicting the weather was important for agriculture, and Candlemas became associated with weather forecasting. A poem from 1678 by naturalist John Ray reflects the belief that the weather on Candlemas Day could predict the arrival of spring. The tradition of using animals for weather prediction was introduced by German speakers who brought their beliefs to the holiday. In Europe, they relied on badgers and hedgehogs as weather prophets. When Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants came to the United States, they replaced the badger with the American groundhog, which was more prevalent in the region.

The first recorded evidence of townspeople trusting a groundhog for weather prediction in Punxsutawney dates back to 1840, but it is likely that the holiday existed for decades earlier. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, which organizes the celebration, claims that the original Groundhog Day took place in 1887. However, the holiday gained widespread recognition and popularity through various events and media appearances, such as Phil's appearance on the "Today" show in 1960 and his visit to the White House in 1986. The 1993 film "Groundhog Day" further contributed to the holiday's fame, with the phrase "groundhog day" becoming synonymous with the feeling of reliving the same day repeatedly.

Despite its early history of consuming groundhog meat, Punxsutawney Phil's value as a weather predictor led to his preservation. In the 1960s, he was officially named Punxsutawney Phil, and he has been the only Phil since 1886, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Phil is given an "elixir of life" every year at the summertime Groundhog Picnic, which is believed to magically extend his lifespan by seven years. Phil is also married to Phyliss, although there is no official information on how many wives he has outlived over the years.

In terms of Phil's accuracy in weather prediction, it has been a mix of hits and misses. The York Daily Record has analyzed every one of Phil's official weather predictions since the 19th century and found that he has seen his shadow 108 times before this year. However, his predictions have not always aligned with the actual weather conditions. For example, two years ago, Phil saw his shadow, and there was a significant winter storm. This year, Phil did not see his shadow, indicating an early spring.

In conclusion, Groundhog Day has evolved from a local tradition to a widely celebrated American holiday. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Celtic traditions and the Christianization of turning point dates. The use of animals for weather prediction, such as badgers and later groundhogs, was introduced by German speakers. Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous groundhog, has become a cult celebrity and has been the center of the Groundhog Day celebration since the late 19th century. While his accuracy in weather prediction may vary, the tradition continues to captivate people across the United States.

The bizarre history of Groundhog Day (2024)
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