Groundhog Day – A History

By Vernon Trollinger, February 2, 2013, Events & Fun, News

image courtesy of WikipaediaSo, let me get this straight: an over-sized chipmunk predicts winter weather depending upon whether or not it gets scared by its shadow?

Forecasting with a rodent smacks of some sort of old-timey gimmick used to sell soap flakes or maybe even the plot for a zany Bill Murray movie. (Then again, aren’t all Bill Murray movies kinda zany?)

Silliness aside, Groundhog Day is a long-standing American tradition  The first recorded mention of the day in the United States comes from James Morris, a store keeper in Morgantown, Berks County, PA, who wrote in 1840:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemass 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.

Pennsylvania Germans brought the custom of animal weather-divination with them from their native Germany where bears, badgers, and hedgehogs had been traditionally held since pre-Roman times as seasonal indicators because their hibernation patterns. If an animal came out of hibernation early, people anticipated an early spring. Since hedgehogs are not native to southeast Pennsylvania, the early German settlers adopted the cantankerous — if not plain ornery — groundhog (“grundsau” in Pennsylvania Dutch) as their herald of springtime.

Because most Americans were farmers until roughly the 1880s, they frequently relied on folklore traditions to best gauge when it would be best to prepare for the spring planting season. February 2, also known as “Candlemass” (or the older Celtic “Imbolc”), falls approximately midway between winter solstice and spring equinox (making it a cross-quarter calendar day). The belief goes that if a bear, badger, hedgehog — or groundhog — sees its shadow on February 2, winter’s fury is spent and spring will begin in 40 days (or 6 weeks). If it does see its shadow and flees into its burrow, then winter weather will linger for another 40 days.

Now in America, Groundhog Day is observed as a fun distraction with different communities competing for the honor of having the most authoritative climatologically-atuned rodent in residence. For 2012, the Wikipedia article on Groundhog Day lists 37 cities and towns with prognosticating powers, including Staten Island Chuck who bit New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009.

In Texas, the day has a different resonance. In 1963, Dr. Donald Cowan, president of the University of Dallas, exhorted students that it was their job to make their own university traditions. “Think of something to celebrate — celebrate Groundhog Day, for instance — but whatever you do, do it with style.” This year marks the 50th annual observance of Groundhog Day at UD which includes a beer party and a Groundhog King and Queen. For the most part, Groundhog Day in Texas is not overly celebrated since it is based on the “predictions of a Groundhog in Pennsylvania; A foreign land having no relevance to Texas or Texans.” In 2012, the Texas Senate proclaimed February 2 as Armadillo Day with the annual prediction to be determined by Bee Cave Bob at Bee Cave, Tx, north west of Austin.

How accurate are rodent forecasts? The cold truth is “not very”. Even though the most most famous ground hog, Punxatawney Phil  has only been right 39% of the time. Also consider that different parts of the country experience different local weather patterns. Even in Pennsylvania, weather in Punxatawney (in the west of the state) is different from Reading, home of Pagoada Patty (who lives in the east of the state). In 2012, Phil saw his shadow in Punxatawney; thus, indicating 6 more weeks of winter. Meanwhile at the Reading Pagoda, Patty did not see her shadow indicating an early spring. In either case, the rodent-based prognostications were meaningless because the winter of 2011-2012 was one of the warmest winters on record.

The important thing about Groundhog Day, even with satellites and computer weather models plotting storm tracks, is that Americans still take time for a giddy outburst of fun amidst the cold bleakness of winter.

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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