Groundhog Day has been dutifully printed on February 2nd of every calendar for as long as I can remember. I recall early grade school crafts where we colored a groundhog, or maybe drew his shadow. As we grew older, it became mostly ignored, until the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray made it represent a day that keeps repeating. But what IS it? Where did it come from? Why is it on our calendar?
Most scholars seem to agree that Groundhog Day has its origins in older European lore. From the Celts, the beginning of February was the Pagan festival of Imbolc which celebrated a turning point in the Celtic calendar. They believed that the hag (witch) Cailleagh gathered the rest of her firewood for winter on Imbolc. If she wanted winter to last, she would make it a fine day so she would be able to easily gather a lot of wood. However, if the day was rainy and cold, then the hag was asleep and they knew winter would end soon. In British Christian tradition, the feast of Candlemas (the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple) is celebrated on February 2nd. Poems around the United Kingdom place Candlemas as a day that predicts the coming spring.
An English Song:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.
A Scottish Couplet:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be twa (two) winters in the year.
In these rhymes it is clear that a sunny Candlemas means there will be a resurgence of winter, but if it is cloudy, winter is on the way out.
These elements of folklore were carried north to the Germans who added their own twists to the stories. They believed that the hedgehog (or sometimes badger or bear) would look for its shadow and predict the end of winter.
A German Couplet:
For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until the May.
This German celebration of Candlemas was brought to America by the early German settlers in Pennsylvania. It seems they selected the Groundhog as prognosticator because they were ubiquitous and reminded them of the hedgehog from their homeland. The first official record of the Groundhog Prediction was in The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in 1886. Today, the best known groundhog prognosticator is Punxsatawney Phil. Each year tens of thousands of people gather in the early morning of February 2nd on Gobbler’s Knob to learn the prediction of the world’s most famous groundhog. Across Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Dutch clubs celebrate with special parties at which only the Pennsylvania German dialect may be spoken. These parties tie their past with their future.
Thus, a seemingly silly tradition connects Americans with their ancestors from many parts of Europe. It reminds us that so many similar traditions have emerged from quite disparate nations. And hopefully, it reminds us that we are more alike than we are different. So, take a moment to enjoy the predictions of the groundhog, for they are far more than just a publicity stunt for a small town in PA.
Learn more about the Celebrations in Punxsatawney.