Every year on February 2nd, people anxiously await the appearance of a medium-sized furry mammal who they believe can predict if winter weather will rage on or if spring will arrive sooner than later. Although it’s a rather strange means of prognostication, millions of people celebrate Groundhog Day, a tradition that is older than many people may know.
The first official Groundhog Day took place on February 2, 1887 at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. In the ensuing 130 years, individuals have gathered in Pennsylvania and other areas around the United States to find out if the groundhog will see his shadow. If the groundhog sees his shadow, winter will continue for six more weeks. If the groundhog does not see his shadow, then spring will arrive early.
Although the Groundhog Day of today is relatively new, the concept is actually quite old and dates back to the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas. Candlemas is a Christian holiday commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Candlemas falls on the 40th day of the Christmas/Epiphany period and is one of the oldest feasts of the Christian Church, celebrated since the 4th century in Jerusalem. Around the 14th century in Europe, Candlemas began to overshine Pagan holidays like Lupercalia (Romans) and Imbolc (Celts). Rather than torches and blessings from goddesses, on Candlemas custom called for members of the clergy to bless candles and distribute them to the people to symbolize that Christ was the light of the world. Weather played a role in the celebration of Candlemas. Rainy, wet weather was preferable because it suggested spring’s arrival was on the horizon.
Candlemas was celebrated in many parts of Europe and eventually spread to Germany, where animals were involved in the ceremony. Hedgehogs were plentiful in the area, and celebrants believed if they cast a shadow during fair weather on Candlemas, more bad weather was in store. Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers were German, and these immigrants brought their Candlemas traditions with them. But hedgehogs were not common in Pennsylvania, so settlers used groundhogs instead. Thus, the groundhog was seen as a wise and suitable substitute for prognostication.
Today’s celebrations include tens of thousands of visitors from all around the world who travel to Pennsylvania to see Punxsutawney Phil in person. Phil has become a celebrity of sorts and has appeared on various television shows, on a jumbo screen in Times Square and as the star of the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.” (Although the real Phil was not allowed to be in the movie because it was filmed in Illinois instead of Pennsylvania, and the Groundhog Day organizers were notably upset.) Boasting a deeper history than many people may know, Groundhog Day will continue to delight revelers for years to come.