Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day and The Pennsylvania Dutch Connection

On February 2, 1887, Groundhog Day, featuring a rodent meteorologist, is celebrated for the first time at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Groundhog Day is perhaps one of America’s weirdest traditions. On the second day of February every year, people in the US and Canada wait for a large, furry rodent to predict the upcoming weather and change of seasons.

To see or not to see

According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on this day and sees its shadow there will be six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring.

Falling midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 2 is a significant day in several ancient and modern traditions. The Celts, for instance, celebrated it as Imbolc, a pagan festival marking the beginning of spring.

As Christianity spread through Europe, Imbolc evolved into Candlemas, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. In certain parts of Europe, Christians believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow.

The Pennsylvania Dutch touch

Germans developed their own take on the legend, pronouncing the day sunny only if badgers and other small animals glimpsed their own shadows. When German immigrants settled Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries (Pennsylvania Germans, aka Pennsylvania Dutch) they brought the custom with them, choosing the plentiful Pennsylvania native groundhog as the annual forecaster.

A little trivia

Groundhogs, also called woodchucks, typically weigh 12 to 15 pounds and live up to 10 years. They are one of 14 species of marmots (Marmota monax), considered basically a giant North American ground squirrel. They eat vegetables and fruits, whistle when they’re frightened or looking for a mate (they’re sometimes called “whistle pigs”) and can climb trees and swim.

Groundhogs go into hibernation in the late fall; during this time, their body temperatures drop significantly, their heartbeats slow from 80 to five beats per minute and they can lose 30 percent of their body fat.

In February, male groundhogs emerge from their burrows to look for a mate before going underground again. They come out of hibernation for good in March.

Way back when

The first official Groundhog Day celebration back in 1887 was the brainchild of local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters—known collectively as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club—on the idea.

The men trekked to a site called Gobbler’s Knob, where the inaugural groundhog became the bearer of bad news when he saw his shadow.

Photo courtesy: Washington Post

These days, the yearly festivities in Punxsutawney are presided over by a band of local dignitaries known as the Inner Circle. Its members wear top hats and conduct the official proceedings in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, supposedly speaking to the groundhog in “Groundhog-ese.”

A swell of visitors

Every Groundhog Day, tens of thousands of spectators descend on Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — a borough that’s home to some 6,000 people normally — to attend Groundhog Day events. Many people are familiar with the town and the day thanks to the 1993 film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. (which was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois.)

Trust the meteorologists

While sunny winter days are an indication of colder, drier air, tune in to your local weather channel for the actual prediction of the weather; studies by the National Climatic Data Center and the Canadian weather service show Punxsutawney Phil’s “success rate” at accurate predictions to be only around 40 percent.

Phil feed – live on the web

If you can’t make it to Gobbler’s Knob in person, fans of Punxsutawney Phil can witness his arrival and prediction in real time this February 2nd starting at 5:45 am (Eastern Time) thanks to a live stream provided by Visit Pennsylvania.

Photo courtesy: WJAC