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Groundhog Day Explained

Origins of the Holiday and Punxsutawney Phil


Punxsutawny Phil
Photo by Archie Carpenter/Getty Images

Of all the holidays celebrated in the U.S., Groundhog Day is among the strangest. Where does our fascination with a rodent forecasting the arrival of spring on February 2 come from?

Groundhog Day Origins

Groundhog Day has its beginnings in the weather lore of Medieval Europe. Much of that lore was linked to two celebrations: the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, and the Christian feast day of Candlemas.

February 1 was considered a date of special significance to the Celts because it was the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. It was on this date that they celebrated Imbolc--a festival of weather divination, or seeking knowledge of spring's arrival by supernatural means. Much of this knowledge was gained by consulting nature, such as watching to see if snakes or badgers emerged from their underground winter dens. According to a Gaelic proverb about the day:

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown day of Bride (Brighid)
Though there may be three feet of snow
On the surface of the ground.

The very festival name "Imbolc" is suggestive of weather divination. Translated, it means "ewes' milk," and refers to February as the time when ewes would begin producing milk for their soon-to-be-born lambs--an event which the Celts considered one of the earliest signs of spring.

In other parts of Western Europe, early Christians celebrated Candlemas, or the "Feast of Light." Observed forty days after Christmas, on February 2, Candlemas was the day reserved for the blessing of candles (light of course being a symbolism for the Christ Child). It became tradition for blessed candles to be placed in the windows of the homes of Christians to illuminate the dark Midwinter night and ward off stormy weather.

With Candlemas Day occurring so near to the halfway mark between winter and spring, it wasn't long before sayings instructing of how Candlemas Day weather bode ill or well for the nearness of spring appeared. According to an Old English saying:

If Candlemas Day be bright and clear,
There'll be two winters in the year.

How Groundhog Day Came to the U.S.

Imbolc and Candlemas superstitions made their way across the pond to the United States when German immigrants traveled to America and settled in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. According to Germanic Candlemas lore:

When it storms and snows on Candlemas Day,
Spring is not far away.
If it's bright and clear,
Spring is not yet near.

When the bear sees his shadow at Candlemas,
He will crawl back into his hole for another six weeks.

And so, Groundhog Day as we know it was born...almost. Traditionally, the bear or badger was considered a predictor of spring. However, since badgers were not indigenous to North America, the Germans imparted the powers of prognostication onto the next closest animal--the groundhog (also known as the woodchuck, land-beaver, marmot, or ground squirrel).

On the next page, we'll look at answering some of the frequently asked questions about the groundhog itself, and its credibility as a meteorologist.

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