Every year on 2 February, I, along with my fellow Americans, anxiously await Punxsutawney Phil’s all-knowing weather prediction. Will we suffer through six more weeks of winter or is a beautiful spring finally on the horizon? So last Thursday was Groundhog Day and Phil saw his shadow, thus forecasting another 6 weeks of winter.
Where does the groundhog come in, you might ask? Well, due to traditions passed on by the ancient Romans, certain animals were believed to have weather-predicting capabilities in various European countries.
Ancient Pagans celebrated the holiday Imbolc on 2 February, as a way to mark the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox, which was considered the real beginning of spring. As an old verse shows, a snake helped predict what weather the seasons would bring:
"The serpent will come from the hold
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground"
In Europe, 2 February was known as Candlemas Day, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Feast of the Holy Encounter, commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the temple and celebrating Mary’s purification forty days after the birth of Jesus. Another tradition associated with this day is the blessing of the candles. Some Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics in particular will bring their candles to their local church, where they will be blessed and used in rituals for the remainder of the year. The candles are symbolic of Jesus Christ, who called himself the Light of the World. Candlemas had also been seen as an important day for weather, as this was the time that sun reached the mid-point between the solstice and the equinox. Due to certain superstitions, some Europeans believed that the weather six weeks from Candlemas Day would be the exact opposite of the current situation. So, if 2 February was cloudy and the sun was nowhere to be seen, a beautiful spring was on the horizon, but if it was a sunny day with blue skies, there would be six more weeks of cold, cloudy winter per this poem from 1678 penned by the naturalist John Ray:
"If Candlemas day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight; If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain Winter is gone and will not come again."
It was not until Candlemas Day was introduced in Germany that an animal was brought into the lore, claiming that if a badger saw his shadow on Candlemas Day there would be a “Second Winter” or six more weeks of bad weather. From medieval times, people had believed that the animal awoke from his hibernation to make the weather prediction for the farmers. If the badger did not see his shadow when he came out, it was a good time to begin the planting, but if the badger did see his shadow, the cold would prevent farming for the next several weeks.
"The Badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day
and when he finds snow walks aboard;
but if he sees the sun shining
he draws back into his hole."
So naturally, after German settlers came to the New World, the Pennsylvania Dutch and other German-speaking immigrants maintained the same tradition of Groundhog Day. But there were no badgers in the eastern U.S., the German immigrants lived in Pennsylvania. The groundhog, however, was quite plentiful, so the German settlers simply decided to assign the impressive weather prognostication powers of the badger to the local groundhog.
Like badgers, groundhogs, also known as woodchucks or whistlepigs, are considered "true hibernators." When they emerge from hibernation, it means winter is almost over. In winter months, their body temperature drops 62 degrees. Comparatively, if a human body temperature drops just four degrees, it goes into hypothermia.
A groundhog's hibernating heartbeat is only five beats per minute. In warmer months, its heart beats 80 times per minute. Their breathing slows down in winter too. It can go from 16 breaths per minute to about two during hibernation.
The earliest known American reference to Groundhog Day was in a Morgantown, Pennsylvania shopkeeper’s journal entry dated 4 February 1841.
In the 1880's groundhog was the cuisine of choice at the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge. The "Punxsutawney Groundhog Club" was founded in 1886 by a group of groundhog hunters, one of whom was Clymer Freas, the editor of the town's newspaper, and quickly published a proclamation about its local weather prognosticating groundhog (although Phil didn't get his name until 1961). The first Gobbler's Knob ceremony took place the next year.
The Club hosts both the annual Groundhog Day ceremony and a summertime groundhog hunt followed by a picnic featuring a variety of groundhog dishes and a "groundhog punch", a combination of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice "and other ingredients."
The real reason groundhogs come out of their holes in early February is to look for mates. Mating season is in March, so they wake up a little early to scope out potential partners and then return to their burrow to wait out the winter. Whether the groundhog sees its shadow on 2 February has more to do with the weather that day than the groundhog itself.
So, even though he saw his shadow last Thursday, Punxsutawney Phil has only been right about 30% of the time. I guess Mother Nature has the final say.