The Origins Of Groundhog Day: Why Do We Celebrate It Again, Exactly?
On February 2, all eyes look to a particular rodent in Pennsylvania to see if he can predict the coming weather better than the television meteorologists. It is Groundhog Day, when a whistle pig (that's an alternative name for the groundhog, as is "woodchuck") named Phil peers out from his winter den in search of his shadow. If he sees his shadow and retreats back to his den, it means we are in for six more weeks of winter. If Phil's shadow eludes him, however, we get an early spring. It's an odd tradition, looking to a groundhog for our weather forecast. Let's take a look at the origins of Groundhog Day.
A Special Day On The Calendar
February 2 wasn't just picked arbitrarily. It's a significant day on the calendar because it falls exactly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a period which is correlated with the coming of spring. On the Christian calendar, it's called Candlemas.
Did Groundhog Day Start With Imbolc?
The origins of Groundhog Day might lie in an ancient Gaelic festival called Imbolc. Long before Christianity swept across the British Isles, the pagan people marked the coming of spring with a festival honoring the goddess Brigid. When Christianity reached the Gaels, the tradition was adopted by the church and became the festival of Saint Brigid. Even today, the festival of Saint Brigid is celebrated in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
The Christian Candlemas
When the Christians adopted Imbolc as a religious holiday, they connected it to the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem in the Bible, but it soon took on a new significance. People began to believe that if it was sunny on Candlemas, it meant another 40 days of snowy winter, but if it was cloudy and overcast, it meant that spring would arrive sooner. That sounds backwards, but ancient people were used to all manner of dissonance in their daily lives.
Groundhog Day And the Pennsylvania Dutch
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many German immigrants to the United States settled in the farmland of Pennsylvania, where they continued participating in traditions like the ideas of sun and shadows on Candlemas day. When they encountered a new animal in the New World, the groundhog, they noticed that it often conveniently emerged from hibernation near Candlemas. Soon, the appearance of the rodent became associated with the weather predictions that occurred on that day.
The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2, 1887. The local newspaper editor convinced a group of buddies to form the "Punxsutawney Groundhog Club," who descended upon a wooded area outside town called Gobbler's Knob in search of a clairvoyant groundhog. They found one, but the creature didn't have good news for the hunters: He saw his shadow, signifying that the townspeople could expect another month and a half of winter.
The Punxsutawney Event Grew
Thanks to the charming and amusing descriptions of groundhog hunt that appeared in the local newspaper, word spread about the town's Groundhog Day festivities. Each year, more and more people planned visits to Punxsutawney on February 2 just to see the groundhog. Today, the town's official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, resides in a posh den in Gobbler's Knob, where he's cared for by an official groundhog master. On February 2, a group of local dignitaries wearing tuxedos and top hats conduct official proceedings in "Groundhogese," or Pennsylvania Dutch.
But Can He Predict The Weather?
Punxsutawney Phil lives a life of luxury, but has he earned it? According the National Climatic Data Center, Phil's predictions are accurate about 40% of the time. That might sound impressive, but it's actually worse than chance. We could better predict the arrival of spring by literally flipping a coin, but coins are far less cuddly.
Groundhog Day, 2020 Is Extra Special
This Groundhog Day, which will take place on February 2, 2020, is particularly exceptional because it's a palindrome. That means that the date, written out numerically, is the same when read from left to right and from right to left. It won't happen again for another century, and we don't need a rodent to tell us that.
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