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Where did we get the idea that groundhogs forecast the weather? A brief history

Following is a guest blog by Sweetums, who shares his knowledge of legends and lore with us from time to time.

By Wil Elrick

When people ask what your favorite holiday is, they are typically expecting the answer to be either Christmas or Halloween, so I always get tickled at their expressions when I answer my favorite holiday is Groundhog Day. I mean, it is a day filled with pomp and circumstance, people wearing tuxedos and nationwide attention for a cute little groundhog. On top of that, the furry little critter is also a weather prognosticator – what’s not to love? It has long been my dream to visit the famed Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and take a selfie with the semi-mythical Punxsutawney Phil.

I am sure by now you know that, according to legend, if the groundhog comes out of his den and sees his shadow winter will continue for an extra six weeks, but if he doesn’t see his shadow we will be treated to an early spring. So how did a relatively common marmot gain such a following as a meteorologist?

Punxsutawney Phil (Photo by Chris Flook | Wikimedia Commons)

Groundhog Day as we know it is actually has its roots in Europe. It was long-held belief that on the holy day of Candlemas a sunny clear sky meant 40 more days of cold and snow. As with most legends, this belief evolved between cultures and German people took the belief that it was only a sunny day if badgers and other small animals appeared. This led to the part of the legend dealing with shadows because on cloudy days, the animals would not have shadows. They also simplified the amount of time from 40 days of extra winter down to four weeks.

When the Pennsylvania Dutch settled in the U.S. in the late 1700s, the legend changed a little more, jumping from badgers to groundhogs (maybe because they were more plentiful and less aggressive) and adding an extra two weeks to the amount of winter we would have because they are Americans now, and everything is bigger in America.

While the belief was widespread in the northeast, it was not until 1887 that the first celebration of the day was held, and it was the idea of a newspaperman. Clymer Freas convinced a local group known as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club to unite the town in celebration. The men chose Gobblers Knob (I’m sure because it has such a groovy name) and had a celebration where the legend of Punxsutawney Phil and his predictions took life, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you have not already heard, Punxsutawney Phil predicted today that we will have six more weeks of winter. You can read his actual prognostication here https://www.groundhog.org. I find it interesting that Punxsutawney Phil managed a slight reference to the modern times of Covid 19. That Phil – he’s just so adorable.

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