How did Groundhog Day start? A history of this holiday

Groundhog Day history

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History of Groundhog Day: Part 1 from 1910

From the University Missourian (Columbia, Mo.) February 28, 1910

To the Editor of the University Missourian: I should like to have the full history of “Groundhog’s Day,” as in one of our clubs this subject was assigned for investigation and we can find nothing here. I shall appreciate it very much if you will give us the desired information through the Missourian. Thanking you for anything on the subject. – I remain, Yours truly, O C Griffith

The following answer to the foregoing query was prepared by George Reeder, meteorologist in the United States Weather Bureau and director of the Missouri Climatological service:

Mr Griffith’s trouble in the attempt to trace the origin of “groundhog’s day” is not unlike that of others along the same lines.

Authorities differ as to what a groundhog really is. A groundhog, says one authority, is one of those animals that live on or in the ground. The facts are that in parts of America and Europe, the groundhog may be either a bear, badger or woodchuck.

groundhog friends audobon plate 1800s
Image: Arctomys monax, Maryland Marmot, Woodchuck, Groundhog. From the Audubon collection via The New York Public Library

The more general opinion is, however, that the groundhog is a woodchuck, in other words, a marmot (a monax), being a heavy, broad-headed grizzled animal of the woods and fields, yellowish to whitish-gray in color, blackish on the back and crown, and chestnut on the belly, with the feet and tail brownish-black. They abound throughout the United States east of the dry plains.

As to the origin of “Groundhog’s Day,” I am unable to give any definite information, as from the earliest ages men’s minds have been occupied with the ever-varying changes of the weather. We do know, however, that Candlemas Day is an ecclesiastical festival instituted by Pope Glasius I in 492, and is celebrated on February 2.

It also must be taken into consideration that the systems of dividing time into years, months, weeks and days was different from that now used. The Gregorian, or reformed calendar, was adopted by the Catholic princes in 1577, in other countries somewhat later, and in England as late as 1752. One may learn by this that groundhog’s day during the old days was not the same as it is now.

1935 Good Housekeeping - Groundhog Day

Whether Candlemas Day was celebrated on February 2 because it was groundhog’s day or whether the groundhog was asked to select Candlemas Day to announce his long-ranged weather forecasts, I am unable to say.

It seems that, according to the notion of our ancestors, on groundhog’s day, or Candlemas Day, the bear, badger or woodchuck comes out at noon to see his shadow. If he does not see it, he remains out; but if he does see it he goes back to his hole for six weeks, and cold weather continues for six weeks longer.

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The sayings of the Scotch, English and French agree in many particulars in regard to weather folklore — such, for instance, as Candlemas day (February 2).

A few of the predictions relative to Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas Day, otherwise now known as February 2, follow:

“If the groundhog is sunning himself on February 2, he will return to his hole for six weeks, and cold weather continues for six weeks longer.” (English and French)

“If on Candlemas day (February 2) it is bright and clear, the groundhog will stay in his den, thus indicating that more snow and cold are to come; but if it snows or rains, he will creep out, as winter is ended.” (German)

“If Candlemas day be fine and clear, Corn and fruits will then be dear. If Candlemas day bring cloud and rain, Winter is gone and won’t come again.”

It is said that an European shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his fold on Candlemas day than the sun.

Groundhog Day Old-timer explains Punxsutawney (1960)

While some of these old sayings are interesting, they are unworthy of serious thought. It is proper to state that all the old long-range weather sayings based upon the observed or supposed habits of animals and birds have received careful investigation, and there is no value whatever attached to sayings of this class.

Nearly all of the old sayings are connected with the saints’ days, having been selected of course for their “special influence.”

The strangest part of it is that there are still many amongst us, even though it be called an enlightened and scientific age, that firmly believe in the weather prediction proclivities of the groundhog day, and also in other old sayings of the same class, thereby indicating that they still occasionally “tread on the fringes of the veil of superstition.”

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The history of Groundhog Day & Punxsutawney, PA: Part 2 from 1972

by Ken Bakewell – Petoskey News-Review (Petoskey, Michigan) Feb 1, 1972

Tomorrow will come and go for most people. Like many other a day, it will have been here and gone before most people know it. Ah, but not in Punxsutawney, Pa. For it’s Groundhog Day!

And, on Groundhog Day, this sleeply little worked-out coal mining town has its day in the sun. That, it does. For tomorrow all the nation, particularly the areas having four-season weather, will be watching the outcome of what goes on shortly after dawn there tomorrow.

Television cameras will whirl, hundreds of still photos will be taken and representatives of both the major news wire services will be there to record the big event and the principal subject.

The principal subject is “Punxsutawney Phil.” And the event is a forecast of the weather for the next six weeks.

Shortly after dawn tomorrow, “Punxsutawney Phil”‘ will emerge from his abode, a hole, atop Gobbler’s Knob, that’s if everything goes as planned, and Phil is not otherwise occupied.

This is the precise moment that all the tensions, the excitement, the agonizing hours of waiting, reach a crescendo.

For, when Phil comes out of his hole, the whole country will know, proof positive, without a shadow of a doubt what the weather will be for the next six weeks. Once Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his hole, he looks around. Real fast like. If he sees his shadow, then things, and the world, aren’t right with Punxsutawney Phil and he retreats into his burrow.

Punxsutawney Phil Groundhog Day - Gobbler's Knob

And, all the nation knows, there are six more weeks of winter if he doesn’t see his image, then soon, spring will be bustin’ out all over.

Folks in the Punxsutawney region, which is a few short rabbit hops from Pittsburgh, don’t know what a Farmer’s Almanac is. They don’t have no truck with that kind of weather forecasting.

Punxsutawney Phil is their man, oops, their groundhog, and he is never wrong. Least nobody has ever heard of him being wrong. Never, never in Punxsutawney. He’s the seer to end all seers.

The weather has on “rare occasion” been opposite of what Phil predicted. But, this wasn’t Phil’s fault! The Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce always has an ace in the hole, if it’s not Phil. On these “rare occasions’ a “climatic phenomenon” has occurred.

Tonight in Punxy, the action gets started. All the townspeople will gather in “The Burrow” that’s the dining room, of the town’s one and only hotel. Here they chomp on — what else.? “Phillet of Groundhog.”

After the meal, the band strikes up and dancing begins to ‘Don’t Let the Sun Get In Your Eyes’, and the ‘Groundhog Slither” is on. (We never knew groundhogs slithered. ) When the dancing, and the betting is set on what Phil is going to do, folks take to their beds. For only a cat nap, though.

Everybody excepting the infants, the extreme elderly and the ill, are up before the rooster crows.

The area in front of the town hall soon resembles a miniature Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Everyone is there. And they’re going up on Gobbler’s Knob, just outside town where Phil lives. Led by the city fathers, and the clergy, (some years, Phil has been known to need all the help he can get to even poke his nose out) the procession is on its way.

Once Punxsutawney Phil does his “thing”‘ it is duly recorded in the annals of the town’s history. Nothing about Phil is omitted. Exactly when he appeared, how long he remained on the outside, if he did return, all sorts of precious data, like that.

The mayor officially sends a smoke signal back to those in the town, who couldn’t make the Gobbler’s Knob trek. One puff if Phil holed, two puffs if he didn’t. This in itself is a pressure-packed frustrating time for those back in town.

Then the two big billboards on each end of town advertising “Punxsutawney, Groundhog Capital of the Nation” have to be quickly changed in keeping with Phil’s prognostication. “Phil seen it” or “Phil didn’t see it”, is placared on a reserved space on the board, The message remains until Phil does his thing the next year.

Photo by CameronKennedy via Twenty20
Photo by CameronKennedy via Twenty20

The lowly groundhog has meant much to Punxsutawney. Its promotion has boosted the economic life more than a little, especially since the majority of coal mines have ceased operating.

A few other communities have tried to steal the thunder away from Punxsutawney with Groundhog Day promotion. These interlopers as they are called-when not weasels-by the Punxsutawney folks have always been in the shadow. Phil’s, that is.

Cause, no town tries harder than Punxsutawney, that’s why it is No. 1 in the ways of the groundhog. Other towns copying the Groundhog Day promotion just slither away and die.

Only during the World War II years did Phil miss coming out of his hole and giving an awaiting nation “The Word” on the weather.

But, then his good wife Phyllis did his thing for him. And for two years, there was changeable weather, for the finicky Phyllis, on Feb. 2 back then, had trouble making up her mind.

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