How Groundhog Day came to the U.S. — and why we still celebrate it 137 years later

The groundhog, arguably the most famous member of his species and the most recognizable of all the animal prognosticators in the country, has been performing for the last 137 years in front of a group of adoring fans and hat-wearing handlers at Knob Gobbler in Pennsylvania during the spring, in search of a sign.

Regrettably, on this windy winter morning, he was unable to locate it.

Phil had chosen to say that he would scroll off the read handler, “It doesn’t matter how you measure it, whether it’s six weeks or more of winter weather, I can still see a shadow of myself on stage.”

Phil’s accuracy rate has been about 40% over the past decade. If he does not say statistics, and if Phil sees his shadow early in the spring, tradition says that North America will have six more weeks of winter.

In 1887, when Phil got the gig, meteorologists now have far more advanced methods for predicting the weather than they did back then.

Every year, without fail, we persistently seek answers from creatures on February 2nd. One might even argue that it resembles the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day”… Or perhaps it is identical to it.

NPR was notified by numerous specialists that there is still a great deal to be discovered from Groundhog Day, both in relation to our climate and our culture.

Daniel Blumstein, an evolutionary biology and ecology professor at UCLA, studies a group of 15 large ground squirrel species that includes marmots. He describes himself as an enthusiastic marmot enthusiast, but he says he doesn’t have to be — Los Angeles always has a sunny Groundhog Day party, even in the perpetually sunny city.

Blumstein says, “I hope that people will have a greater appreciation for nature and marmots, and that they will chuckle over the idea that in the middle of winter, a rodent will tell us what the future holds.”

Groundhog Day has its roots in ancient midwinter ceremonies

How did the United States ultimately come to observe Groundhog Day in the beginning?

Harman Troy, a history professor at Penn State University, also works as a ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. He states that the equinox in spring and the solstice in winter mark the halfway point between the Christian and pagan traditions, which can be traced back to ancient times.

The Celtic tradition of Imbolc, which dates back as far as the 10th century A.D., Involves lighting candles at the start of February.

The festival of Candlemas commemorates the moment when Mary, the Virgin, went to the Temple in Jerusalem after 40 days of giving birth to Jesus, presenting her firstborn son to God and being purified. This idea was later expanded in the Christian church.

Once again, Winter brings rain and clouds. If Candlemas is fair and bright, Winter will not come again. Candlemas is an English folk song that predicts how long Winter will last. As time went on, the focus of the day became increasingly about predicting winter. On this day, clergy would distribute and bless candles, which were needed for the winter season.

In accordance with German legend, if a hedgehog spotted its own shadow, it was believed that there would be a “second winter” or an additional six weeks of unfavorable weather. Germany took it a step further by incorporating animals, particularly hedgehogs, into the ceremony.

Alternatively, they relied on groundhogs (which were abundant in Pennsylvania) as hedgehogs are not indigenous to the U.S., According to Harman. This was just one of the many customs that German settlers in Pennsylvania introduced to the United States.

Harman explains that the notion of observing animals and their hibernation shadows had been ongoing before the 19th century, but it wasn’t until later in that century that it transformed into a public festival. However, the earliest documented celebration took place in the 1880s.

The inaugural Gobbler’s Knob ceremony occurred the following year, marking a significant event in history. Despite not receiving its name until 1961, Phil, the local weather forecasting groundhog, promptly issued a declaration regarding the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. This club was established in 1886 by a collective of groundhog hunters, including the town’s newspaper editor.

The popularity of the eponymous movie and the ability to live-stream the festivities is largely due to the fact that participants, far more than just a few scrolls and old-timey garb, are considered a part of the Day Groundhog club.

In Canada and many parts of the U.S., There are also furry forecasters and beloved animal prognosticators. Some of these include “Wiarton Willie” and “Staten Island Chuck” (aka Hogg G. Charles), who are contemporaries of Phil and are better-known in Ontario and New York.

“Any location that currently possesses a groundhog is attempting to gain some credibility from it,” Blumstein states.

“In North Carolina’s Pisgah, a white squirrel named Pete and a beaver named Duck are the Stumpton Fil. They serve as an example for the Scramble Connecticut, showcasing the fun one can have. It’s not just groundhogs that are getting in on the fun.”

There are things animals can teach us about the climate

Blumstein states that there is a scientific foundation for the Candlemas tradition.

If it is sunny, there is a possibility that marmots could cast a big enough shadow. The weather ahead suggests that if there is a low-pressure system, it would probably continue to be cold and things wouldn’t likely change. He says that if there was a high-pressure system in early February, it would indicate better weather.

However, that alone does not make them dependable predictors.

“I am uncertain,” states Blumstein, noting that Phil’s forecasts entail “him murmuring to individuals donning top hats and amidst an inebriated audience, so one cannot truly rely on that,” regardless of the potential for foreseeing whether it will be sunny on Groundhog Day and if spring arrives early or late.

He says there is still a lot that humans can learn from the behavior of groundhogs. A long-term project that is about to begin its 62nd year is studying yellow-bellied marmots in Colorado, as a window into how animals are responding to a warming climate and flexible longevity.

He clarifies, “if you will, the concept of flexibility and adaptability within a single generation, and how it relates to the evolutionary changes over time. We are truly interested in understanding the evolutionary responses and how they can vary. It is important to note that there is an optimal period where you should be proactive. Additionally, there is a possibility that there could be evolutionary responses to these changes. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that you may face some risk of predation every day, but having a longer growing season could potentially benefit marmots. Perhaps, it is a positive aspect for them.”

Come out from hibernation, the yellow-bellied marmots to wait for the snow on skis, Blumstein spends time as part of that research.

Typically, males emerge first and then commence seeking females to mate with, hence confirming that Groundhog Day aligns with Candlemas and also coincides with the period when groundhogs in the northeastern U.S. Begin to appear.

“Groundhog Day is actually a holiday about sexual activity,” he adds.

Blumstein asserts that all animals deserve respect, regardless of whether prognosticators acknowledge it. While some people consider groundhogs a nuisance because they snack on produce in gardens, Blumstein believes that living with wildlife in suburban and urban areas is a good thing as it brings people closer to nature.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a groundhog living in your backyard, I sort of envy your ability to see and enjoy it and maybe give some of your apples or tomatoes up and pay attention to it and learn from it.

Technology improves, but people still look to Phil

The state is calling for a significant boost in tourism for the town of fewer than 6,000 people, as large crowds of 30,000 have turned out for the multi-day Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney.

Across the globe, guests, orations, melodies, and performers are showcased in the event itself, which made a comeback on the stage in the previous year following a pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harman says, “It’s an uplifting event that brings together the culture, foods, and music from various nationalities, reminding us of something from a premodern and medieval period.”

He holds a hypothesis for why Groundhog Day became, and continues to be, so well-liked in the United States.

Harman explains that during the time of the Industrial Revolution, the concept of Groundhog Day emerged, highlighting the significant role played by our right brain hemisphere – which encompasses imagination, emotion, and intuition – as a powerful counterpart to the scientific emphasis that has prevailed throughout history.

According to him, the longing for simpler times, fueled by significant societal and technological transformations, encompassed both literary romanticism and gothic revival architecture.

People now look down at their cell phone screens instead of looking up at the sun and stars to determine the time of day or year; technological advances have made us less in tune with the changing seasons. Even today, Phil’s handlers continue to wear long, dark top hats and tails as they take part in the Inner Circle, known as Punxsutawney.

In Punxsutawney, that might already be the situation — and as time goes on, Harman asserts, there will be “some joyful middle ground” where embracing fresh culture is just as crucial as preserving tradition.

“He states that every individual possesses inherent instincts, intuition, and imagination, which must be harmonized with logic and rationality. I have a strong belief that those who attend Gobbler’s Knob are fully cognizant of the influence of scientific knowledge, yet simultaneously desire to preserve customs and a profound atmosphere.”