What is Groundhog Day?

History of the Weather Forecasting According to the Shadow of the Groundhog

Groundhog Day is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike, although its origins date back to an ancient pagan festival and celebration associated with fertility and weather prediction. Later, the Roman Catholic Church replaced the festival of Imbolc with two: Saint Brigid's Day, celebrated on February 1, the traditional first day of spring in Ireland. This occasion honors an Irish Roman Catholic nun, and founder of several convents, who is considered one of Ireland's patron saints along with Saint Patrick. Also, Candlemas Day is celebrated on February 2, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and features candlelight processions.

In the 1700s, when German settlers arrived in North America, they continued to honor Candlemas Day on February 2, the mid-point of winter halfway between the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was their custom on Candlemas Day to put a lighted candle in each window of the home. If the sun came out, it meant six more weeks of cold and stormy weather.

An old German poem expressed this thought. “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.” Another German belief stated, “The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and, if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.” Similarly, an old English saying expressed it this way: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.”

Germans watched a badger for the shadow. In Pennsylvania, the groundhog was selected as the replacement. The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College. It is a diary entry dated February 4, 1841 written by a storekeeper, James Morris, who lived in Morgantown in Berks County. “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” (from the Stormfax Weather Almanac)

Pennsylvania's official celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper's editor, Clymer Freas: “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.”” The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” and his hometown thus called the “Weather Capital of the World.” His debut performance: no shadow - early spring. (from the Stormfax Weather Almanac)

In 1723, the Delaware Indians settled Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a campsite halfway between the Allegheny and the Susquehanna Rivers. The town is 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and has become the most well-known site for modern Groundhog Day festivals. In 1993, Columbia Pictures released a film entitled Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a TV weatherman who wakes up and everyday is Groundhog Day.

“In popular culture, the phrase ‘Groundhog Day’ has come to represent going through a phenomenon over and over until one spiritually transcends it.” (Suzanne Daughton, Critical Studies in Mass Communication) Since the movie, attendance at the real event has grown exponentially. In 1997, there were 35,000 visitors in Punxsutawney, more than five times the town’s population of 6,700.

Both Canada and the United States have several cities where Groundhog Day is observed. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it means six more weeks of winter, and no shadow means spring is around the corner. Groundhog Day promoters claim that the groundhog’s forecasts are accurate 75 to 90 percent of the time. A Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years puts the forecast success rate at 37 percent. The National Climatic Data Center has stated that the average predictions accuracy rate is around 39 percent.

Other famous groundhogs include: Buckeye Chuck of Marion, Ohio; Pardon Me Pete of Tampa, Florida; Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh, North Carolina; Gary the Groundhog of Kleinburg, Ontario, Canada; Balzac Billy of Balzac, Alberta, Canada; Dunkirk Dave of Dunkirk, New York; Staten Island Chuck of New York City, New York and General Beauregard Lee, PhD of Atlanta, Georgia.

Written by: Pete Miller