The History of Groundhog Day
By Animal Planet
Think Groundhog Day originated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? Think again! Learn about the history and origins of Groundhog Day with our timeline.
Many thousands of years ago, the ancients recognized that the shortest day of the year occurred in late December and the longest in late June. In time, these days came to be known as the winter and summer solstices. The two days exactly in between — when day and night are of equal length — are called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and these fall in late March and late September respectively. Many ancient calendars were based on these important days. In some areas of the world, the midpoint between a solstice and an equinox was called a cross-quarter day. In the British Isles, the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox was a time for celebration. Folks noticed that on this day, regardless of how cold or dreary the weather was, signs of renewed life began to appear. New grass began to grow, winter storms began to subside, lambs and calves were born, ravens started building their nests, and larks sang more loudly and clearly than before.
The ancient Celts of Ireland dedicated the cross-quarter day between the winter solstice and vernal equinox to the goddess Brigid, who was associated with wisdom, poetry, healing and smithcraft. According to myth, Brigid was born at sunrise as her mother, a slave, was carrying milk across the threshold of her master’s house. Similarly, the cross-quarter day, which fell on Feb. 1 on the Celtic calendar, was a seasonal threshold, signaling the coming of spring. The festival of Brigid was called Imbolc, or Oimelc, a name that refers to ewe’s milk. By association, the name refers to the birth of lambs and other farm animals, which traditionally occurs on or around the first of February. According to the Celts, if the weather was bright and clear on Imbolc, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy. This idea has been carried over to Groundhog Day.
At least as early as the 4th century A.D., Christians in Jerusalem were celebrating the ritual purification of Mary on Feb. 2, 40 days after the birth of Jesus. By the 5th century A.D., it was custom to light candles on this day. On Feb. 2, the clergy would bless candles — symbols of Christ and His association with light — and distribute them to the faithful, who placed one in each window of their home. This important Christian holiday came to be known as Candlemas Day. Not surprisingly, early Christians were well aware that Candlemas Day fell midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. The weather on this day was as important to them as it was to the ancient Celts.
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.