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The Origin of Groundhog Day

Updated on March 24, 2011

It's Actually the End of the Christmas Season

February second is Groundhog Day, a day on which winter weary residents of the northern climes look to a ground dwelling rodent to tell them whether spring is just around the corner or if they can expect six more dreary weeks of winter. How was it that our modern technological society came to rely on a little rodent weighing about ten pounds for weather information?

Among the ancients there was a belief that spring could be predicted by the emergence of hibernating animals from their winter sleep. Different peoples in different parts of the world each had their own animal that they believed could predict the emergence of spring. When these people emigrated to America they brought their customs and traditions with them. But their new homeland was not always the same as their old homeland and, over time, customs and traditions sometimes had to change to adapt to the new conditions.

Groundhog Day is Related to Candlemas

When Germans began migrating to the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1700s they brought not only the ancient superstition about the emergence of a hibernating animal being an indication of the immanent onset of spring but also the tradition of Candlemas.

Candlemas, which falls on February second, is celebrated in various parts of the Christian world as the end of the Christmas season as well as, in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, the feast of the purification of Mary and the feast of the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Since Candlemas falls half way between the Winter Solstice (first day of winter) and the Vernal Equinox (first day of spring) a superstition arose that the weather on Candlemas would indicate whether there would be an early spring or a late spring. Falling on the date midway between the start of winter and the start of spring, Candlemas was halfway through the winter.

A German Tradition Brought to Pennsylvania

The belief arose that fair to good weather on Candlemas represented a pause between storms and they could expect that the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. However, if the weather was stormy on Candlemas then winter had basically blown itself out and spring would be early. Of course, the ancient superstition about hibernating animals predicting the onset of spring and the belief that the weather on Candlemas was a predictor of when spring would come merged. Since sunshine is usually associated with good weather, the belief emerged that if a hibernating animal emerged and saw its shadow that was an indication that the weather was good and that six more weeks of winter weather could be expected

In Germany, the Germans had looked to the badger as the predictor of spring. But badgers were not that common in Pennsylvania so the woodchuck, also known as the groundhog, became the animal of choice. It was believed that the groundhog would emerge from its hibernation on Candlemas, February second, and if, upon emerging, it saw its shadow it would return to its burrow and hibernate for another six weeks as the winter blew itself out. However, if it did not see its shadow it would conclude that winter was sufficiently over and begin foraging for food and not return to hibernation until the next autumn.

According to the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, the first official reference to Groundhog Day in the U.S. is an entry in the diary of James Morris, a Morgantown, Pennsylvania store owner. The February 4, 1841 entry in Mr. Morris's diary commented that Candlemas had occurred two days before on February 2nd and that, according to an old custom among the Germans, if a groundhog emerging from his burrow on that day saw his shadow it would immediately return to its burrow and sleep for another six weeks while winter continued. If it didn't see its shadow it would remain outside looking for food.

While the belief that the arrival of spring could be predicted by the groundhog and its shadow was widespread and old, it remained a simple superstition shared by many until February 2, 1886 when the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania declared the town to be the site of the official Groundhog Day prediction for the nation. In time the promotional efforts of the Punxsutawney Spirit got the town and the celebration noticed and, by the mid-twentieth century newspapers around the country were reporting whether or not the groundhog in Punxsutawney saw his shadow on February 2nd. However, until 1966 the actual viewing of the groundhog emerging into the daylight was a secret affair attended only by those associated with managing the event. But in 1966 it became a public event that was broadcast around the nation.

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    • profile image

      Gassan 6 years ago

      this is the first time i heard about this

    • AdamCairn profile image

      AdamCairn 8 years ago from UK

      I was born on Groundhog day but I never really knew anything about what it meant, but I loved the film with Bill Murray. Now I know, thanks!

    • profile image

      Donna Jay Machale 11 years ago

      You have one really awesome site, it gets right to the point and is one of the most clear, understandable articles I've ever read.

    • Chuck profile image
      Author

      Chuck Nugent 11 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I have seen the movie "Groundhog Day" with Bill Murray and loved it.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 11 years ago from San Francisco

      Great hub! Have you seen the movie "Groundhog Dog" with Bill Murray? Surprisingly good.

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