This week in history: Groundhog Day

This past Sunday, the U.S. and Canada celebrated Groundhog Day (along with the Super Bowl). According to legend, if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2nd, after emerging from its burrow, winter will continue for six more weeks. If the groundhog sees no shadow, spring will arrive early. So Groundhog Day involves a reversal of assumptions: clear weather on 2/ 2 means more winter, since clear skies lead to shadows, while cloudy weather means an early spring.

Groundhog Day owes its origins to Candlemas Day, a German festival celebrated on February 2nd. German folklore said winter would drag on if Candlemas Day was clear and sunny, but spring could come early if not. The tradition took that idea a step further by assigning various animals the role of weather-checker. If a bear saw its shadow on Candlemas – or a fox, badger, or hedgehog – the weather must be clear and winter would continue. German immigrants brought the tradition to Pennsylvania during the 1700s. These were the Pennsylvania Dutch, and their name is an anglicization of “Deutsch,” the German word for German. The Pennsylvania Dutch found hedgehogs in short supply in Pennsylvania, so they swapped out their traditional weather-checkers for the more abundant groundhog. The traditional spread across North American during the mid-1800s.

Bill Murray’s movie, Groundhog Day, features a beast named Punxsutawney Phil. He’s a real animal (said to be immortal), living in Punxsutawney, Pa, which celebrates Groundhog Day every year, with Phil making his appearance at a spot called Gobbler’s Knob.

Photo originally by April King & cropped for this blog post, used with permission under CC BY-SA 3.0

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