The Furry Underbelly of Groundhog Day: A Crazy Tradition’s Historical Roots

Groundhog Day seems so clear cut: adorable, hibernation-weary marmot is prodded from his den on Feb. 2, and if a shadow is cast the area is due for another six weeks of cold winter. Who would have guessed that it springs from an ancient Pagan celebration of the beginning of spring? (OK, maybe that one’s kind of obvious.)

Actually, the whole “animal spots his shadow and it stays cold” thing didn’t happen until Imbolc, the Celts’ celebration of spring, was Christianized and turned into Candlemas. About then, people started claiming that if it was sunny for the Candlemas celebration, winter would persist for six more weeks. But there was dispute about what constituted a sunny day. Seeking a way to measure “sunniness” indisputably (it had to be scientific, after all), it was decided that if it was sunny enough for a small animal like a badger to cast a shadow, it was sunny, and so winter would persist for six more weeks.

The Candlemas tradition followed the Europeans as they immigrated to America, where instead of badgers, native groundhogs were adopted as the arbiters of sunniness. Then, in Pennsylvania in 1887, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club got ahold of the tradition and things went wild. Punxsutawney now has an “Inner Circle” of top-hatted dignitaries who officiate the Groundhog Day proceedings from Gobbler’s Knob, the bastion of groundhog appreciation, and speak “Groundhogese” (aka Pennnsylvania Dutch). Their groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, despite his poor prediction record, is a veritable celebrity.

Needless to say, a groundhog is hardly necessary to predict the course of winter, especially given their unremarkable prediction rate. The Oregon Zoo uses an African pygmy hedgehog, which is, if not more effective, possibly more adorable. A beaver would do just fine as well. Hear that, Benny?

by Mica Habarad