Old World Variations
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, old pagan traditions were coupled with new Christian observances. In the case of Candlemas Day, the old belief that the weather on the first day of February foretold the length of winter was combined with the Christian holiday, which occurred a day later, on Feb. 2. In Scotland, the saying went, “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be twa [two] winters in the year.” An old English saying held that, “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.” Likewise, in Germany, the Teutons believed that if the sun was out on Candlemas Day, winter would last another six weeks. At this time of year the Teutons also watched for hibernating animals, like badgers and hedgehogs, whose emergence signaled the end of winter. Eventually, the two traditions were combined; if a badger or hedgehog cast a shadow on Candlemas Day, it meant the sun was out and there would be six more weeks of winter.
When German settlers arrived in America in the 1700s, they brought with them their Old World beliefs about Candlemas Day, including the idea that if a hibernating animal saw its shadow on Feb. 2, winter would last another six weeks. German settlers in Pennsylvania — known as the Pennsylvania Dutch — found groundhogs living in burrows all over the countryside. These winter hibernators were considered as knowledgeable about the weather as the badgers and hedgehogs of Germany. The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day was written on Feb. 4, 1841, by a Pennsylvania storekeeper named James Morris. In his diary he wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters, and if he sees his shadow, he pops back for another six-weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy, he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” There was also a popular American saying in the 1800s that went, “If the sun shines on Groundhog Day, half the fuel and half the hay.” This means that if the weather is fair on Feb. 2, the second half of winter will be as long and cold as the first, so if you don’t have at least half your wood and hay left, there will be lean times ahead for your family and livestock.
The Punxsutawney Pedigree
Groundhogs were held in high esteem in Punxsutawney, Pa., even before white settlers arrived. Punxsutawney — which means “the town of the sand flies” — was first settled by the Delaware Indians in 1723. The Delawares believed groundhogs were their distant ancestors. This belief was based on a Delaware creation myth, which held that people were born as animals deep inside the earth and emerged hundreds of years later to live as humans. On Feb. 2, 1886, an editor for The Punxsutawney Spirit published a story about a group of friends who went searching for groundhogs in the woods of Punxsutawney each Candlemas Day. The following year, the outing became an official event known as Groundhog Day. The first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded area outside Punxsutawney, was held in secrecy; only the groundhog’s prognostication was revealed to the public. It wasn’t just any old groundhog either, but the famous Punxsutawney Phil, who — according to legend — has been making weather predictions since that first official Groundhog Day in 1887. Punxsutawney Phil gave his predictions in secrecy until 1966, when the private ceremony at Gobbler’s Knob was opened to the public. Since then, it has become a national media event. After the release of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, attendance at the annual event has jumped to more than 30,000 people.