The History of Groundhog Day
This year’s Groundhog Day was on a Wednesday. Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2, and it involves a groundhog coming out from its den after hibernation and predicting the weather. If the groundhog sees its own shadow, it will go back to its den and six more weeks of winter are expected. If it doesn’t, spring will come early.
According to History.com, this tradition, which was started in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania by German immigrants and has been celebrated since 1887, originated from Candlemas. Candlemas is an ancient Christian tradition that involved clergy blessing and distributing candles that represented how bad the winter would be. A sunny Candlemas meant 40 more days of the winter weather in parts of Europe.
Germans expanded on this tradition and gave the abilities of predicting the weather to badgers. If badgers and other small animals saw their own shadows, the weather would be sunny. German immigrants in Pennsylvania replaced the badgers with groundhogs during the 18th and 19th century because groundhogs were native to the eastern part of North America while badgers were not.
The first celebration of Groundhog Day took place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania when the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, a group of groundhog hunters, went to Gobbler’s Knob in 1887. Groundhog Day first appeared in a local newspaper in Punxsutawney in 1886, but the first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob was in 1887. Since then, more people gradually started to celebrate Groundhog Day.
A newspaper editor in the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared that Punxsutawney Phil was the only true weather-forecasting groundhog in America, who was named after the town. During Prohibition, Phil apparently threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter on Punxsutawney if he wasn’t allowed a drink. According to the lore, the same Punxsutawney Phil is supposedly still around to this day.
Along with being involved in the legend of predicting the weather, Phil is said to be 136 years old, predicting the future weather since 1886. Groundhogs in captivity typically only live up to 14-15 years, but Phil is given a sip of the “elixir of life” at the Groundhog Picnic in the summer, which lengthens his lifespan by 7 years.
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website states his name was changed from Br’er Groundhog to Phil, named after King Philip. They claim he’s “the only true weather forecasting groundhog” while others are impostors and say Phil’s predictions are always true. Every February 2, Phil tells his weather prediction in “Groundhogese ” to the Groundhog Club president, who translates it to the world.
Phil, however, has only predicted the weather correctly 24% of the time since 1990 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or about 35-41% according to the Staten Island Advance. Staten Island Chuck reportedly has an accuracy rate of about 85%. This year, he predicted an early spring while Phil predicted six more weeks of winter, like last year.
The legend of groundhogs predicting the weather with their shadows seems to be the only part of the lore that people know. Matthew Priblo, a sophomore at LHS, said, “I had no idea that according to the lore, Punxsutawney Phil is 136 years old. I didn’t really know much about Groundhog Day or why it was a thing until now.”
When asked what he thought about the lore, he stated it was interesting and he feels more people should know about it, especially since Groundhog Day is a big celebration in America. He found the Prohibition part a bit strange and wondered if it meant that Phil can control the weather. How could he make winter last for 60 weeks?
The groundhog in Milltown, New Jersey, named Milltown Mel, had predicted the weather since 2016. His owners, Jerry and Cathy Guthlein, said Mel had been right almost every time, with the exception of one winter when the weather was bad. This year, Mel died just before the Groundhog Day ceremony, and the Milltown Wranglers were unable to find a replacement.
Milltown Mel is actually the second Milltown Mel, as the first died in 2015. Most groundhogs were still hibernating when Mel died, so they weren’t able to have baby groundhogs to replace him and won’t be able to replace him until the spring. Stonewall Jackson, the groundhog in Sussex County, also died right before the Groundhog Day ceremony in 2016.
Most people really only know about Punxsutawney Phil and are not particularly aware of other states, including ours, having their own groundhogs, like their knowledge of the lore. Daniel Chong, a sophomore at LHS, stated, “I only really heard about one of them dying before Groundhog Day recently. I didn’t know there were other groundhogs, especially multiple in New Jersey.”
He went on to express confusion at why Milltown Mel’s, or any other groundhogs’, age was not lied about like Puxsutawney Phil’s. He asked, “Is it because Punxsutawney Phil’s the original? Did they have to continue the legend after it was first made?” He also wondered why New Jersey had more than one groundhog while Pennsylvania just had Punxsutawney Phil.
Groundhog Day is a fun holiday to celebrate, but maybe it’ll be better to celebrate while knowing about the origins and the weird but interesting lore behind it, particularly stuff related to Punxsutawney Phil. If you’ve ever wondered why we have a holiday dedicated to a groundhog seeing its own shadow or not to predict the weather, now you know.