Groundhog Day

“They say we’re young and we don’t know” is the line of the Sonny and Cher song, “I Got You, Babe,” that Bill Murray hears over and over again, in the 1993 comedy (yes, that’s right, 30 years ago) “Groundhog Day.”

This will not be a movie review, although I do think it is one of the all-time great comedies, this post will be about the origin of the actual day. The first official Groundhog Day celebration took place on February 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The annual ritual has roots in pre-Christian traditions and was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants.

Groundhog Day’s roots come from the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day when clergy would bless, February 2nd Christians would take their candles to the church to have them blessed and distribute candles that represented how long and cold the winter would be.

Candlemas is a primarily Catholic festival but also known in the German Protestant (Lutheran) churches Germans expanded on the tradition by selecting the hedgehog to predict the weather, bringing the tradition with them to America and trading the hedgehog for a groundhog.

As time rolled on the day evolved into another form. The following English folk song highlights the transition to weather prognostication.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

Groundhogs also called woodchucks and whose scientific name is Marmota monax, typically weigh 12 to 15 pounds and live six to eight years. The groundhog was once also known by the obsolete Latin alias Arctomys monax. The genus name signified “bear-rat”.

In February, male groundhogs emerge from their burrows to look for a mate (not to predict the weather) before going underground again. They come out of hibernation for good in March.

The first Groundhog Day took place on February 2, 1887, at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A newspaper editor belonging to a group of groundhog hunters from Punxsutawney called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. The line of groundhogs that have since been known as Phil might be America’s most famous groundhogs, but other towns across North America now have their own weather-predicting rodents, from Birmingham Bill to Staten Island Chuck to Shubenacadie Sam in Canada.


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