Every year, on the second day of February, we ask a groundhog to predict how long winter will last. This annual event is known as Groundhog Day, and it is a uniquely American tradition.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never considered the absurdity of this holiday or questioned its origins. Because let’s be honest: Can a groundhog predict the weather? And what kind of animal is a groundhog anyway? Also, why is this holiday so beloved in Pennsylvania? Read on for answers to these questions and more.
What is Groundhog Day?
It’s a classic movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. (Just kidding — I know that’s not the answer you’re looking for.) In fact, Groundhog Day is an annual holiday that occurs ever February 2 in Canada and the US. On this day, a groundhog (most famously, Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog from western Pennsylvania) arises from hibernation to predict whether the next six weeks will feel more like winter or spring. The prediction is made amidst much fanfare, with a ceremony conducted by a local leader wearing old-fashioned finery like suits and top hats.
How did Groundhog Day start?
February marks the halfway point between the beginning of winter and the beginning of spring — which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a significant time for many cultures. February 2, specifically, is the day of the Christian festival Candlemas; In the Middle Ages, many believed that hibernating animals awakened from their winter slumber on this day. According to Groundhog.org, The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s official website, German Candlemas tradition dictated that if the animal (initially, a hedgehog or a badger) saw its shadow, there would be six more weeks of cold weather. Conversely, if it didn’t see its shadow, spring would come soon. This tradition migrated to the US along with German settlers, and the first mention of Groundhog Day appeared in a Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania newspaper in 1886.
While groundhogs are beautiful and special in their own way, they weren’t chosen on their merit. They’re simply more available in the United States than the traditional hedgehog or badger, says Groundhog.org.
What is a groundhog, anyway?
Groundhogs, also called “woodchucks” or “whistle-pigs,” are burrowing rodents in the squirrel family. They’re herbivores, which you may have guessed if you’ve had run-ins with them in your garden. They can weigh as much as 15 pounds as adults, but lose up to half that weight during their long winter hibernation.
Who is Punxsutawney Phil?
While different regions each have their own groundhogs for making the annual Groundhog Day prediction, the most famous is Punxsutawney Phil. Groundhog.org says Phil is “the only true weather forecasting groundhog,” and points out that his predictions are always correct. He lives at Gobbler’s Knob, a park in Punxsutawney, PA, where the yearly ceremony takes place. He’s also a little long in the tooth, as he’s the only hog who has been making predictions since 1886. (You read that right: Locals claim Phil’s been the same groundhog for the last 137 years.) What’s his secret? An annual summertime sip of a secret “elixir of life” at the Groundhog Picnic, says the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. According to legend, this formula grants Phil seven more years per sip — a veritable fountain of youth. Why are you holding out on us, Phil? Sharing is caring!
Some other fun facts about Phil from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club:
- He has a wife named Phyliss, but she doesn’t receive the elixir of life, so “she will not live forever like Phil.” A tragic romance, indeed.
- His favorite foods are veggies, and he enjoys the occasional honey and oat granola bar, despite the cavity it once caused.
- Aside from making public appearances, his favorite activities are reading a good book or the daily newspaper. Where he learned to read, we do not know.
Phil is cared for by the Inner Circle, “a group of local dignitaries responsible for carrying on the tradition of Groundhog Day,” says the club’s website. There are 15 of them, and they’re all volunteers, according to Smithsonian Magazine; they must also wear suits and top hats when interacting with the legendary animal. When Smithsonian Magazine asked the former Inner Circle president, Bill Cooper, why they dress to the nines for these liaisons, he replied, “Punxsutawney Phil is a dignitary around here, so we think he deserves the same treatment.”
Want to meet Phil for yourself? You can request an appearance via the club’s appearance page. Otherwise, catch his spring prediction live online tomorrow at 6 a.m. EST. Here’s to hoping for a sooner springtime … and for Phil to feel a sudden spark of generosity and decide to share his immortality elixir with the rest of us.