I had this question tossed at me last week as we were ramping up to Groundhog Day. I knew that Groundhog Day was older than Bill Murray’s 1993 hit movie by the same name, but how long has Groundhog been an event to celebrate? All of my life, anyway... but the real answer was going to take a bit of research.
The origin of Groundhog Day goes back to German settlers who arrived in America in the 18th century. These settlers brought the celebration of Candlemas with them. Candlemas is also known as the Feast of the Presentation and the Feast of the Purification, a Christian Holy Day based on the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2:22–40. According to one source I researched, this celebration dates back to the fourth century.
In the ancient tradition of Candlemas, the clergy blessed and distributed candles that would be needed for winter. Somehow the local belief grew that the length of the candles represented how long and cold the winter would be.
Germanic peoples expanded this concept by selecting an animal, the hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. When German immigrants came to America they brought this tradition with them. Not having any hedgehogs to look to for weather prognostication, they adopted the groundhog as a substitute.
Many of these German settlers made their homes in Pennsylvania and ultimately the town of Punxsutawney became the center of the Groundhog Day ceremony that takes place every February 2nd. Punxsutawney is located about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburg. As a side note, the town’s name comes from the Delaware Indian name for the area which means "the town of the sandflies". Sounds like some place I’d want to move!
In 1886, an enterprising local newspaper editor named Clymer Freas had an idea on how to put his town on the map. He presented his idea to a group of friends who were known as Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The idea took hold and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared that a local groundhog, which they named Phil, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. The first official Groundhog Day took place February 2, 1887. That location was a spot known as Gobbler's Knob, which is small wooded hill about a mile southeast of Punxsutawney.
Punxsutawney Phil is now the world's most famous groundhog. Over the last 132 years, Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow 104 times, did not see his shadow 18 times and 10 years are not documented. From the records that exist Punxsutawney Phil is correct in his predictions about 39 percent of the time.
As the tradition goes, if Punxsutawney Phil comes out of its hole on February 2nd and sees his shadow, he will return to his burrow and we get six more weeks of winter weather. If he doesn’t see his shadow, that means an early spring. That is what happened last Saturday.
Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs, because of their habit of whistling when they’re frightened or when they are looking for a mate. They typically weigh 12 to 15 pounds and live six to eight years in the wild. They eat all sorts of vegetative matter and fruits. They burrow into the ground, but they can also climb trees and swim. Based upon the lifespan I just noted, we must have had 15 – 20 Punxsutawney Phils over the years.
Groundhogs begin their hibernation cycle in the late fall. Like many other hibernating mammals their body temperatures drops significantly, their heartbeats slow from 80 to five beats per minute and they can lose 30 percent of their body weight. In February male groundhogs emerge from their burrows briefly to look for a mate before going underground again. They come out of their hibernation cycle in March.
The date of February 2nd is not an accident. It falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This date was also a significant day in several ancient cultures. For example, the Celts, celebrated it as a festival marking the beginning of spring.
The event last Saturday was presided over by local dignitaries wearing top hats and long coats called the Inner Circle. All “official business” is done in an old Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. The Inner Circle is said to converse with Punxsutawney Phil in a secret language called “Groundhogese.” The event now draws tens of thousands of people and I’m sure brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local community.
So now you know. I’d say that Clymer Freas had a heck of an idea. What kind of critter and legend can we build to promote Beatrice? There has got to be something we can create around the Darcy Street gang of turkeys?