Every year on February 2, news channels across the country broadcast from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where Groundhog Phil emerges from his burrow to look for his shadow. “If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.”
Most people think about this quirky holiday as just a whimsical part of American folklore. It’s origins, however, are much, much older and represent a belief in animal and weather divination. Because that’s what Punxsy Phil is really doing, he’s an animal predicting the weather!
Groundhog Day falls onto the cross-quarter day commonly known as Imbolc or Candlemas. These cross-quarter days (meaning midway between the solstice and equinox) were traditionally times for divination because it was believed that the ‘veil between the worlds’ was thinnest during these periods, thus making divination easier.
Several folk proverbs from around Europe speak to this tradition
- England:“If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.”
- Scotland:“If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, There’ll be two winters in the year.”
- Germany: “The badger peeps out his hole on Candlemas Day, and, if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.”
As we can see, Candlemas/Imbolc was a very common time for weather divination and customs of using animals to do this abound. Ireland traditionally used Marmots and the Germans used badgers. When the Pennsylvania Dutch (or as they’re commonly known the Amish) emigrated to the United States in the 19th century, they brought with them their folk customs including those associated with Candlemas. As few badger are found east of the Mississippi River, the role of weather prophet was transferred to the groundhog.
We see the first written reference to this tradition in the diary of a Pennsylvania storekeeper from 1841:
“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.”- James Morris (February 4, 1841)
In 1886, Pennsylvania’s official celebration of the holiday began and Punxsutawney Phil was given the official title ‘Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary’. Since then, this day remained a minor but well know holiday in the United States. Perhaps made most famous after the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray came out in 1993.
I have always had a particular love for this holiday, probably due largely to the fact that I was born in Punxsutawney… but after making the connection to its pagan origins as an adult, it has become even more significant to me. We have such few surviving fragments of our folk traditions in the United States, so to actually still have one that makes it onto the news every year really puts a smile on my face. All is not lost!
Happy Groundhog Day!
Santino, Jack; All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life
Randolph, Vance; Ozark Superstitions