It didn’t take long for a marmot and a movie to become part of America’s cultural lexicon, helping us learn more about Groundhog Day.
Punxsutawney Phil (say that three times fast!) is the most famous of the groundhog prognosticators, trotting out to predict the weather each February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The 1993 movie, Groundhog Day , stars Bill Murray, spawned the notion that Groundhog Day means a repeating day, often with disastrous results.
The legend of Punxsutawney Phil began in the mid-1840s. The town was originally a campsite for the Delaware Indians, and they considered the groundhogs to be honorable ancestors. When German settlers came to the area in the 1700s, they brought with them the tradition of Candlemas Day. The day, midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, was customarily marked by clergy blessing candles and distributing them to the people to stave off the dark of winter. If the weather was fair, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy; if the weather was bad, then spring was just around the corner.
There are literary references in a number of cultures to Candlemas Day. For instance, the old English saying goes:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
And the Scottish saying:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year.
And for the German settlers in Pennsylvania, this is what they recited:
For as the sun shines on Candlemas day,
So far will the snow swirl until may.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas day,
So far will the sun shine before May.
The old-country German tradition involved a badger casting a shadow to predict the return of winter. After settling in Pennsylvania, the settlers substituted a groundhog as a prediction tool.
The first mention of the tradition was in a storekeeper’s diary from Morgantown, Pennsylvania. “February 4, 1841 – Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas 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.”
Officially, the area began its celebration on February 2, 1886, with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit: “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” The groundhog was given the name, “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraodinary.” A big name for such a little creature.
Of course, supporters of Phil claim his success rate is around 90 percent, while others claim the critter is correct only 39 percent of the time.
Whatever you believe about Punxsutawney Phil and his weather predictions, you can join the fun with our video from our friends at Farmers’ Almanac. Or check out the official website of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club or learn more about the day at Wikipedia.
Let’s hope Phil doesn’t see his shadow. I, for one, am ready for winter to be over!